Visual Effects (Davis,Fisher,Jones,Colomo )
Sam Rockwell (Oscar Winner), Bryan Cranston (Oscar Nominee), Phillipa Soo (Emmy nominee), Chaka Khan, Angelina Jolie (Oscar Winner), Helen Mirren (Oscar Winner), Danny Devito (Oscar nominee).
That’s just a partial list of the acting talent in this film. Aside from Bryan Cranston, though, you will only recognize these actors by their voices because they are the voice actors behind the animals in this family adventure/comedy/fantasy from Disney (and only available to stream on Disney +). I’m not quite sure when production started on this combination live action and animation film, but maybe the safety of recording roles in a sound booth was a really attractive way to avoid contact during the pandemic.
And so, yes, Disney brought out its talented animators and attracted some amazing voices to give us this story, based on a Newberry-award-winning children’s novel by Katherine Applegate. And it helps a great deal that the book is based on a true story of a gorilla, named Ivan, who was lovingly raised by a human family, but who then spent all but the last six years of his life ‘working’ in a mall circus in Tacoma, Washington. (After serious protests, he spent the last six years of his life at Zoo Atlanta in a larger, friendlier environment.)
Ivan is a gorilla who ‘works’ as a side-show animal who emerges at the end of a small series of animal acts, roars, thumps his chest, and, generally, astounds the families who pay a few bucks to see the show while they rest from spending the rest of their money at the center of late twentieth century capitalism, the shopping mall.
But, this is a Disney film, so the animals talk, dream big thoughts of what might be on the other side of the highway, and even make feeble plots to escape. They aren’t treated badly in this film – it IS a Disney flick and ‘no animals were hurt …’. But there has to be a story here, so Ivan dreams of escaping to a another world where there are trees and dirt and, maybe, even other animals like him. He has ongoing conversations with the other animals trapped like him, including a couple of dogs (Devito and Mirren), an aging elephant (Jolie), and a couple of birds (Soo and Khan). They have quite the time doing things that animals only do in Disney flicks – talk to each other and dream like they are humans. At one point a second, baby, elephant arrives (Brooklynn Prince – The Florida Project). Oh, and, yes, Ivan draws and paints!
If that’s all you want from an hour and a half of your movie-going lifetime, then you won’t be disappointed. This is a good family experience, especially for those with small kids. Rated G, it has absolutely no sex, drugs, profanity, intense experience, or violence of any kind – nothing that will offend anyone. And the animation of the animals is so seamless, that you can’t tell where live action ends and animation begins. The fact that these animals talk to you like they are humans seems so natural that you quickly forget that you are watching a film packed with Oscar-nominated visual effects. (Although I felt incredibly uncomfortable with Disney’s animation in the Lion King film from last year, I didn’t have the same reaction to this one – things seemed more natural).
But, aside from these visual effects and a soppy story that will, indeed, make you cry, the story is really extremely trivial and the characters vapid. Phillipa Soo (whose singing in this year’s Over the Moon was the highlight in that film) never sings a note and is totally wasted. Most of the other actors are recognizable from their voices, but none of their personalities ever really come through. Where is some of the sass from Angelina Jolie or the irreverence of Danny Devito? Rockwell is serviceable as Ivan and Cranston occasionally shows some of the depth that he demonstrated in Breaking Bad and Trumbo, but generally, it is pretty obvious that these folks did this film because they couldn’t find anything else to do during the pandemic.
If what you want is a very simple film for family viewing with small kids that won’t leave you with much to think about the next day – or even the following hour – then go for it. Otherwise, just about anything is a better way to spend your time. (1.5 Stars)
Available only on Disney+