Review: “The One and Only Ivan”

The_One_and_Only_Ivan_PosterOne of many COVID-19 victims in Disney’s 2020 lineup, the cinematic version of the 2012 children’s novel “The One and Only Ivan”, itself based on the true story of the artistic titular gorilla, is the latest big screen picture to instead debut on Disney+. Directed by Thea Sherrock of “Me Before You” fame, written by former “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” contestant Mike White who also penned “School of Rock” and numerous other notable features, and sporting an all-star voice cast including Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito and Helen Mirren, “The One and Only Ivan” brought a lot of potential to the table. If I’m being honest though after the travesty that was “Dolittle” at the start of the year seeing another feature about talking animals combining CGI and live action didn’t exactly enthuse me. But the strength of the cast and crew convinced me to give it a chance and what I found was a heartwarming, if watered down story that offers a lot of substance for families and young viewers to cling to.


Screenshot Courtesy of Disney

“The One and Only Ivan” sees Sam Rockwell voice silverback gorilla Ivan who is the main attraction in a circus housed in an old mall. He has a strong bond with his human caretaker Mack (Bryan Cranston) who raised him since a young age. As the circus starts to lose its crowd over time Mack seeks a new headliner to bring in customers and thus enters a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). At the urging of the show’s elder elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie) Ivan formulates a plan to free the animals into the wild in order to keep a promise to Ruby for a better life beyond the limits of her cage. It’s a charming story that tackles some pretty dark and powerful themes in a child-friendly manner, which is, of course, a staple of Disney’s films both animated and live action. Everything from death to animal rights and even ideas like “family is what you make it” and the importance of being willing to make sacrifices for the greater good are all both subtlety and blatantly incorporated into the narrative.


Screenshot Courtesy of Disney

This movie reminded me of a good old-fashioned family adventure that I’d die to see with my parents on the big screen when I was young. It’s attempts to target younger viewers over anyone else does water down the weight of its ideas a little too much for my taste, but “The One and Only Ivan” still makes a powerful effort to get what it can from these ideas while staying within its comfort zone. The acting and CGI help too as “The One and Only Ivan” manages to provide some pretty solid visuals and utilizes its voice cast properly. In that sense it is everything “Dolittle” SHOULD have been, but that’s as far as I’ll go in comparing these two movies as “Ivan” is by far the superior film in every way. The comedy does still utilize pandering kid humor but it’s not as annoying as it probably should be and the rest of the film’s quality overshadows these lesser elements. Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Brooklynn Prince, Danny DeVito and the rest of the voice cast are extremely charming and sincere in their deliveries and hold your attention with every word thanks also in part to a script that simplifies the dialogue for the target demographic without losing any of the emotional weight behind the words.


Screenshot Courtesy of Disney

If there’s anything wrong with “The One and Only Ivan” worth spelling out in a review like this it’s the predictability which honestly should be expected from a kid-friendly Disney adaptation of a children’s novel by now.  It’s not just the Disney-specific clichés that weight it down. The formulaic feel goes beyond that right up until the third act where you think the movie is going to go one way and then pulls a fast one and changes direction in order to suit a more powerful idea for its final moments. I honestly never read the book so I don’t know if it’s straight out of the adaptation but I do like how this story doubles back at the end to resolive itself in a different way than initially presented. A lot of what led up to that about face though relies on modified conventions, the same old ideas and cliches with just enough originality and charm to give the movie a pass. That wasn’t enough for me to write it of as a bad movie, but it was enough for me to admit to myself I’ll probably forget about it over a short time because it’s so familiar in terms of it’s setup, pacing and story structure. It’s the acting, visuals, and emotional weight of the script and story that really provide the payoff which, when you think about it, is all it really needed.


Screenshot Courtesy of Disney

“The One and Only Ivan” isn’t a perfect or even terribly memorable Disney adaptation but it’s a solid one at worst. Possessing solid visuals, child friendly appeal with adult friendly themes worked in, sincere and effective voice acting and fun writing “Ivan” promises to be a joy for families and youngsters to help offset those COVID blues and remind us about the simple pleasures of life in addition to encouraging us to embrace the difficult changes reality brings us in hopes for escaping the cages we’ve come to accept. If for no other reason than that lesson alone, “Ivan” is as timely as it is entertaining. While it definitely conforms to certain formulas, it packs a lot of heart that outweighs its familiarity while its 95-minute run time provides for effective pacing that helps keep you invested from start to finish in the adventures of Ivan and his circus friends. Overall I deem it an enjoyable family film worthy of the Disney brand.


A five-star rating

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