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'The One and Only Ivan' film explores grown-up ideas, but doesn't condescend

This image released by Disney Plus shows Bryan Cranston, left, with baby elephant Ruby, voiced by Brooklynn Prince, and Stella, voiced by Angelina Jolie, in a scene from "The One and Only Ivan."

DISNEY PLUS/AP

By SONAIYA KELLEY | Los Angeles Times | Published: August 26, 2020

Katherine Applegate’s children’s novel “The One and Only Ivan” is chock full of big ideas.

The story, about a 400-pound gorilla who performs in a suburban mall’s circus attraction, touches on themes of greed and capitalism, empathy and liberation from oppressive systems.

“And ironically enough, ‘Ivan’ is about isolation,” said Applegate. “Ivan was in a cage in the middle of a mall for 27 years without seeing others of his own kind. So in a strange way, it’s perfectly timely.”

Based on a true story, the book has been adapted into a live-action film of the same name by screenwriter Mike White. It’s now available for streaming on Disney+, after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred the studio to forgo a theatrical release.

Produced by and featuring a vocal turn from Angelina Jolie in a prominent role as an aging elephant, the cast is led by another Oscar winner — Sam Rockwell — as the titular silverback. The ensemble — which also includes Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Chaka Khan, Phillipa Soo and Brooklynn Prince — delivered their animal turns using state-of-the-art, motion-capture technology, while Bryan Cranston leads a smaller cast of human characters as the struggling circus owner.

“I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel for our actors,” joked director Thea Sharrock. “It was really, really tough.”

Sharrock, who made her directorial debut with 2016’s adaptation of Jojo Moyes’ romance novel “Me Before You,” sought to retain the empathy and nuance of Applegate’s bestselling novel by hewing close to the source material.

“Having a theater background, I was taught very early on that the most important person in the room is the playwright or writer,” she said. “When you adapt a book that lots of people already love, and particularly when it’s for children, there’s a huge responsibility (to get it right). Probably the most important part of my job was to not betray that connection that they have with it but to understand what the things are that create the love affair between the reader and the story.

“I’m also incredibly proud of the groundbreaking CGI that has gone into this,” she added. “I truly believe that the level of artistry is unique. My heart goes out to all of the animators who spent hours and hours creating something of this caliber.”

“It’s an event (film),” agreed Jolie, who, in addition to serving as a producer, voices the elephant Stella, Ivan’s longtime friend whose dying wish is for him to help the circus’ new baby elephant find a life outside the confines of the circus.

“What has been achieved with the animation is advanced. What looks seamless is so complicated,” Jolie said of the film’s unusual production process. “Thea was kind of directing three different movies at the exact same time. She’s hearing my voice and working with us as people, but then she’s also thinking of the animals’ body movement, how long it takes for them to move across a room. She was directing the animation. If you take a big sigh, or the elephant shifts its weight, or there’s a twinkle in the eye — it is part of the soul of the animal. It had to be monitored intensely to make sure it’s accurate.”

The actress was first introduced to the novel by her kids.

“My daughter Shiloh was the one that brought the book to my attention,” she said. “As a mom, I related to (Stella), and I loved what she represents. I think we all have that time in our life where we start to think of passing our wisdom on. Where our focus is: What makes the next generation safe? What makes those I love safe?”

“I’m so happy to be able to bring this film to families at this time,” she added. “If this film meets this moment and is something for families to do together, then really there is nothing better.”

Having spent the past decade acting predominantly in blockbuster tentpoles like “Kung Fu Panda,” “Maleficent” and their sequels — and up next in Marvel’s hotly anticipated sci-fi epic “The Eternals” — Jolie says the audience payoff is primarily what draws her to make big-budget movies.

“If we’re going to do a big movie, I like thinking of the audience and giving them as much as we can,” she said. “And to show them something new and give them something outsize. Or else a very deep, small film that’s extremely intense and emotional. I don’t take lightly the idea of putting something in front of an audience.”

The longtime activist says she’s been spending the bulk of her time recently working to find the answer to questions that have been raised or magnified by the pandemic.

“I’ve worked with the refugee agency at the UN for about 20 years now,” she said. “Looking at the world through a global foreign policy lens, there’s a lot to be concerned about.

“(But) my hope really does come from the younger generations,” she added. “I see them fighting and demanding answers, questioning what is very broken about our society and the way many things have been mishandled for decades. There’s a lot to do. (Creating) better tools to give young people so they can strengthen their fight has become a central focus for me.”

She says it’s crucial to approach children’s entertainment with a degree of frankness and honesty.

“I think some people approach (this) work lightly,” Jolie said. “I think going into things like (‘Ivan’), it may appear as a children’s story, but that’s not how Katherine approached it. It’s not how Ivan’s life was approached. What I love about the book is that there are certain lines where it’s so simply put, but says so much. And I think that’s why children relate to the book so much and will love the film, because it’s not presented to them with some manufactured idea of what we think. The way (Ivan) says things with such purity, it’s just drops of truth.”

“It’s funny,” Applegate said. “With kids, particularly middle-grade readers for whom I often write, they’re just ruthlessly honest. They understand so much more than we give them credit for. So it’s deeply important not to condescend. They understand the world is not black and white; it’s gray. And they’re grappling with those questions internally, so I think sometimes books and movies are the best way for them to be able to vocalize those fears and concerns.”

“Hopefully, like many pieces of art that are strong like this, children continue to ask questions and do their own investigating,” Jolie said. “Hopefully this will inspire them even further to know that there’s a lot that must be addressed and fought for, and their instinct will be to ask the right questions and demand the right things.”