The One and Only Ivan
Updated: Jul 13, 2021
The One and Only Ivan (now streaming on Disney+) is a sweet family movie with nice characters, pleasant performances and some cute animals. What it doesn’t have is a compelling story or any drama. It is diverting for a bit, but it feels like a short film stretched to feature length. It doesn’t develop its characters or explore its themes. Instead, a few concepts are introduced (such as the way the animals relate to humans or their need to be free), then the plot wanders for a while before getting to what is supposed to be a heartwarming climax. However, without much energy being put into building toward that climax, it doesn’t mean what it should. It is an okay time-waster for little kids, occasionally amusing and inoffensive, if completely forgettable.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla who serves as the headliner for a small circus located inside a shopping mall. He is promoted as a fierce beast, yet is actually quite kind. Then, two major things happen: the circus gets a new act and Ivan discovers an ability to draw. Both of these events combine to ignite in him a yearning for something more.
The mixture of live-action humans and CGI animals looks fine. The animals can understand the humans and speak to each other perfectly, though the humans cannot hear them. That is how the animals know the circus is having financial difficulties, even as the humans remain unaware that Ivan and his buddies are starting to feel cooped up in their cages. That forces the story to one of its biggest clichés: the little girl who sees everything the adults don’t. That is Julia, the daughter of one of the circus employees, who hangs out with Ivan, gives him crayons and paper and somehow intuits what the animals are thinking. She is such a transparent plot device that it is a challenge to take her seriously.
The largest misplaced idea is in the relationship between Ivan and Mack, the circus owner. Mack certainly cares about the animals (Ivan most of all); still, he is keeping them in captivity while exploiting them for profit. The movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with him or this contradiction. There are a handful of conversations between the animals about the trouble humans present, though it is hard to tell if it considers Mack to be trouble. The usually great Bryan Cranston can’t do much with a role that was never made clear.
That leaves the animals and their voice actors to provide the entertainment. Danny DeVito as a smart-aleck dog, Angelina Jolie as a wise elephant, Helen Mirren as a pampered dog and Brooklyn Prince as an adorable baby elephant convey each of those roles exactly how you’d expect; they all do okay. The best thing the filmmakers did was hire Sam Rockwell to give voice to Ivan. Rockwell, one of the best actors working today, contributes so much nuance, even with simple line readings. Ivan isn’t prone to massive displays of emotion, but Rockwell’s tonal shifts tell us more than the animation can. This is a caring creature who enjoys the life he has, yet can’t seem to shake the feeling that he’s missing out on something. Since that arc isn’t really developed, it is up to Rockwell to get viewers to recognize what Ivan is going through. It is an impressive vocal performance, despite the movie not being able to capitalize on it.
The One and Only Ivan (based on the 2012 book of the same name, written by K.A. Applegate and illustrated by Patricia Castelao, which was itself loosely inspired by a true story) does a good job of efficiently introducing its central characters and themes. It then moseys around for a long time, doing little of note with any of it. The voice work is strong enough to keep things from slowing to a standstill and there are several nice moments between Ivan and his friends, but there just isn’t enough substance to fill out its hour and a half runtime.
2¾ out of 5
Sam Rockwell as voice of Ivan
Bryan Cranston as Mack
Danny DeVito as voice of Bob
Ariana Greenblatt as Julia
Brooklynn Prince as voice of Ruby
Angelina Jolie as voice of Stella
Helen Mirren as voice of Snickers
Ramon Rodriguez as George
Directed by Thea Sharrock
Screenplay by Mike White