Listen, I hear ya: Things can get weird when animals in live-action movies start talking to one another, perhaps even more so now that the technology makes them look so convincingly real. We’re watching humans interact in normal, non-verbal fashion with elephants or penguins or lions or what have you — and then when the people leave the zoo or the sanctuary, the creatures start yapping away with all kinds of wacky accents, and all of a sudden it feels like we’re in a “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” sequel.
The Disney+ movie “The One and Only Ivan” has its share of snappy (and sometimes sappy) animal banter that might have the grown-ups rolling their eyes while their little ones lap it up, but this is a sweet and lovely story with seamless blending of CGI and live action, fantastically funny and warm voice work from an all-star cast and a cool epilogue in which we learn this tale is actually based on the real-life story of one Ivan the western lowland gorilla, who was brought from Africa to the States as a baby and spent some 27 years in a concrete enclosure at a shopping center in Tacoma, Washington, before animal welfare activists successfully campaigned to have him placed in an outdoor habitat.
Not that “The One and Only Ivan” is a docudrama. I’m pretty sure Ivan didn’t sound exactly like Sam Rockwell or have friends like Stella the pachyderm (Angelina Jolie), Snickers the aristocratic poodle (Helen Mirren), a chatty chicken named Henrietta (Chaka Khan) or a mangy mutt of a best friend called Bob (Danny DeVito). Ivan and his pals are performers in a sad and flailing small circus located in a shopping mall in what appears to be the late 20th century. Their owner/ringmaster is the increasingly desperate Mack (Bryan Cranston), who has cared for Ivan since the gorilla was a baby (as we see in some truly weird flashback home-movie sequences) and is somewhere between kind and cruel when it comes to treating his prized talent. (Mack genuinely cares about Ivan, but he regards the menagerie as his meal ticket, and, it never occurs to Mack these magnificent creatures are basically enslaved in cages.)
Just as Stella is slowly slipping away, Mack brings in a new headliner who becomes instant box office: an impossibly cute baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). Stella, who remembers a time long ago when she was living in the wild, makes Ivan promise he will figure out a way to spare Ruby from a lifetime of captivity. When Ivan discovers he has a talent for drawing, he determines he will use that skill to communicate with the humans and spark a rebellion. How about that!
There are times the family-friendly slapstick comedy and heavy messaging about the heartbreak of animals in tight, dark, cold captivity don’t exactly mesh. But the visuals are truly impressive and the story has an uplifting arc, and oh do these actors have fun hamming it up. Danny DeVito leads the way with a performance so quick and witty and warm, we wouldn’t mind seeing a whole movie about Bob the dog.