The One and Only Ivan (2020)

It’s never too late to discover who you are.

A Disney live-action/ animated hybrid akin to Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016), The One and Only Ivan is a silver screen adaptation of the award-winning children’s novel written by Katherine Applegate and illustrated by Patricia Castelao. Or should I say, ‘silver stream adaptation.’ You see, the film is currently available to watch on Disney+, but was initially slated to premiere in theatres in August of this year until 2020 happened, so now it’s found a home on streaming. But that’s not to say that The One and Only Ivan doesn’t feel cinematic, quite the contrary — it’s got fantastic VFX (the digital animals are highly expressive and stunningly lifelike), delightful performances, and is chock-full of powerful messages promoting animal’s rights and the notion of ‘home.’ It’s good ol’ fashion Walt Disney magic in the comfort of your living room.

‘We’re in this together Ivan, we’re family.’

A touching and charming tale of an artistic ape, the movie tells the story of a silverback western lowland gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), who resides in the enclosure at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where he’s been performing at a mini circus for the past 27 or so years. Ivan has spent the majority of his life in captivity; he was bagged by poachers and taken out of his natural habitat when he was an infant before being purchased by a man named Mack (Bryan Cranston), who brings Ivan home to live with him and his wife Helen (Hannah Bourne) in their residential abode. However, Mack very quickly learns that a baby gorilla ain’t fit for suburban life, the tyke causing Mack and his wife to split. That’s when Mack moves out and starts up a little show at the Big Top Mall, which he purchases, recruiting a bunch of talented animals to star alongside his top act — the One and Only Ivan. And business booms for a while.

But, as the years roll, the ticket sales drop, despite Ivan’s best efforts, who tries to stimulate crowds with his gargantuan roar at the close of each show. As it turns out, Ivan likes his circus domain, having enjoyed the limelight for all these years — because, hey, that’s all he’s ever known. Mack has been a generally kind and compassionate owner, and Ivan’s four-wall living quarters have been relatively roomy, comfortable, and sanitary. Ivan has made a bunch of new friends, too, who share the communal habitat: this includes senior elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie, who also co-produces), who’d spent much of her life on stage and currently performs together with Ivan, and a street mutt who’s later named Bob (Danny DeVito), who sneaks into Ivan’s inclusion and is adamant on remaining a stray, having no desire to be adopted by humans.

‘Not-Tag needs a belly rub.’

Things forever change when Mall custodian Mack hires a new act to attract more business, a baby African bush elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), who’d been stolen and separated from her family in the wild. Ivan, though reluctant to share the spotlight at first, soon begins to warm to Ruby; and it’s this friendship that starts to open Ivan’s eyes, the once easy-going great ape now beginning to question everything he knows, wanting to learn more about his life before confinement, his kinship, and, ultimately, where he wants to live out the rest of his days.

No stranger to the Hollywood weepie, The One and Only Ivan has been beautifully directed by Thea Sharrock, who helmed the 2016 tear-jerker Me Before You. And she’s pulled out all the sob-story stops here. No animal-lover will be left dry-eyed before the final credits roll. And the fact that The One and Only Ivan is based on a true account makes it all the more heartbreaking; the film, while entirely fictional, is inspired by the real-life story of Ivan, who lived in a similar situation for 27 odd years before being adopted by Zoo Atlanta.

‘I want her to have a life different than mine. I want her to be free in a safe place. Not a cage.’

The One and Only Ivan stands suitably beside Disney classics such as Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), moralistic and timeless movies about animal cruelty and the inhumane nature of animal imprisonment. With a script penned by Mike White, Pitch Perfect 3 (2017), the film does, at times, lean towards formula and occasionally departs from its source, but scribe White and filmmaker Sharrock do a credible job exploring, in a Disney-fide manner of course, many of the story’s complex themes: identity, freedom, memory, and man and the natural world — so, there’s plenty to dissect with young’uns afterward.

Starting out a tad too kiddie, The One and Only Ivan eventually finds its groove, settling in and becoming a surprisingly good family flick. And it’s Ivan that really grounds the picture. You see, while the eponymous Ivan is entirely computer-generated, he’s very easy to sympathize with, especially as he reveals his tragic past. The narrative is also told through Ivan’s perspective, and the character convincingly conveys a broad range of human thoughts, feelings, and emotions despite being pixels on a screen. Sam Rockwell’s performance here is quite layered and nuanced, balancing humor, sorrow, and heart — it’s a restraint turn from the 51-year-old star for sure, but boy, does it resonate. Ivan is impressively brought to life by the expert CGI team, led by VFX supervisor Nick Davis, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), who does a stand-up job with all of the film’s various effects, including a convincing de-aging of Bryan Cranston in a flashback.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

On Cranston, he plays a character that could have easily been vilified, the former Breaking Bad (2008-13) star imbuing Mack with depth and pathos, giving an earnest portrayal of a fundamentally kind-hearted man, even if he sometimes acts callously — financial pressure forces Mack to push Ruby too far in a truly harrowing moment. Warning: there are scenes of mild animal abuse, albeit not too dark or frightening. The film does pose an interesting question, though — if Mack isn’t the bad guy, who is? Likewise, other human co-stars, while not handed a heap of screen-time, fare well in their respective parts: there’s Ariana Greenblatt from Disney’s Stuck in the Middle (2016-18) playing Julia, the girl who inspires Ivan to draw and paint — art and expression is another theme here, with Ivan freeing his mind even though his body is still trapped, physically — and Ramón Rodríguez, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), as Julia’s father George, a janitor working at the shopping mall.

Of the all-star voice-talent, it’s Danny DeVito who barks loudest as Ivan’s canine companion Bob, the Hollywood heavyweight recently appearing in last year’s Disney Dumbo live-action remake, which shares plenty of parallels with The One and Only Ivan. The voice ensemble also features Helen Mirren, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018), as a snobbish poodle, Ron Funches, Trolls (2016), as a white fire truck-riding rabbit, and writer Mike White as a nervous seal named Frankie, to name a few.

‘I guess you need an artist’s eye to see it.’

As somebody with a deep love and respect for creatures big and small, The One and Only Ivan hit me right in the feels. Sure, it’s fairly predictable and doesn’t exactly tread uncharted territory when it comes to its subject material (and, honestly, the whole talking animal thing has passed its used-by date). Still, with its nice visual flourishes — there’s some cool paint stuff going on — spirited performances, and strong take-home lessons, The One and Only Ivan is ideal, uplifting all-ages entertainment — mark this one down, Melbournians, who may not get a chance to take their kids to the cinemas these school holidays. Ultimately, this is a movie that gives its 400-pound primate protagonist a voice, and young people, too, encouraging the next generation to speak up and make themselves heard; it demonstrates just how we should treat wildlife, but also how we should treat one another — with kindness and compassion. Let it wake the animal activist inside us all!

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

The One and Only Ivan is currently streaming on Disney+