Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 2020. Allison Shearmur Productions, Digital Makeup Group, Jolie Pas Productions, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by Mike White, based on the book by Katherine Applegate. Cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. Produced by Angelina Jolie, Allison Shearmur, Brigham Taylor. Music by Craig Armstrong. Production Design by Molly Hughes. Costume Design by Jill Taylor. Film Editing by Barney Pilling.
The Big Top Mall is a shopping centre done entirely in a circus theme, and one of its attractions is a big top show that you can take in after finishing your shopping or as a way to keep your kids busy. The daily show is run by Bryan Cranston, who puts on his best circus master personality as he introduces the kids to his coterie of animals, the show culminating in the appearance of Ivan, a silverback gorilla who gives a gorgeous roar to end things with a bang. Backstage, Ivan lives a peaceful, if uninspiring existence with his friends, chatting (via the voice of Sam Rockwell) with his wise elephant friend Stella (Angelina Jolie) and keeping an eye on Thelma the parrot (Phillipa Soo), Snickers the poodle (Helen Mirren), Henrietta the chicken (Chaka Khan), Frankie the seal lion (voiced by screenwriter Mike White, who also makes a brief appearance in human form) and Murphy the bunny (Ron Funches). Keeping things lively backstage is also Bob, a stray dog (voiced by Danny DeVito) who has to hide from Cranston’s wrath but spends his evenings sleeping on Ivan’s giant belly. The rest all have their position in the show that they perform with daily diligence and question nothing, which changes when a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) joins the gang as a new double-act with Stella. She brings with her the memories of having been captured, which then awaken in Ivan his own memories of the road that brought him to this place of glass walls and iron bars. Ivan is visited daily by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), a little girl whose father works as janitor backstage and who gifts the gorilla a set of crayons once she notices he has a gift for drawing. Where it goes from there might be familiar to you if you know the true story upon which this unremarkable but sweet family film is (very loosely) based, which White imbues with elements of fantasy (like the fact that these animals all chat with each other) but doesn’t create anything clever out of all the pieces he’s given to play with; the only excitement is the animals staging an outbreak and getting as far as the parking lot before realizing just how terrible this world they’re living in truly is. There’s a passing sense of poignant wisdom to its animal rights narrative to keep it from being too cheesy, with characters who are so easy to love that you’ll find yourself lulled into a pleasant enjoyment of the story’s quiet revelations and modest sense of adventure. For a series of animals that are for the most part created digitally, the characters all have a convincing presence among their human co-stars, with Cranston (for once underplaying things) doing a particularly good job of interacting with them and creating a real sense of tension and affection.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Visual Effects