Synopsis – A gorilla named Ivan tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant named Ruby as they hatch a plan to escape from captivity.
My Take – Over the years I think we have seen quite a few films which learn hard on the notion that animals don’t deserve to be in captivity especially in a place like a circus where they are, against their nature, forced to perform for the entertainment of a paying human audience.
While the sight of this animals, irrespective of their size, confined in a space away from their natural habitat always breaks the animal lover inside me, personally, I was not in favor of watching yet another helpless animal tale from Disney, following the lacking experience that was director Tim Burton‘s 2019 live action remake of Dumbo. Plus, somewhere deep inside I think I am still reeling in from my terrible experiences of witnessing shallow talking CGI animal films like The Lion King remake, Cats, and this year’s colossal flop, Dolittle, films which focused so heavily on crafting their said digital creations that they forgot to induce any form of heart to land any shred of resonance.
To make matters worse, the last time the pandemic-induced cinema shutdown forced Disney to pull their adaption and relegate it to their streaming service, Disney+, we ended up with a catastrophe called Artemis Fowl.
But to be honest, I think I would have given this film a shot anyways, after all it is based on the children’s book of the same name by author K.A. Applegate, a best seller which I have really enjoyed reading (along with its sequel, The One and Only Bob), a story which was inspired by the life of Ivan, a real-life silver-back gorilla who lived, as an attraction, at shopping center in Tacoma, Washington, for 27 years.
Thankfully, director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) does an excellent job of staying true to the book and bucks the trend of emotionally hollow CGI animal train wrecks to deliver an entirely delightful, surprisingly touching, and endlessly charming family flick, while making a case for Disney that they still have goods to tug at your heartstrings.
Sure, the plot is predictable, given that it’s a story about sad caged animals, but there’s enough genuine emotion threaded through the formulaic story to make the film enjoyable, surpassing some otherwise cheesy moments, making this one an utterly delightful family film, and a first actual feature win for Disney+.
The story follows Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a western silver-back gorilla, who for years has been the star attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, run by Mack (Bryan Cranston), who does double duty as the ringleader. Here, when Ivan isn’t locked away in a cage he’s performing alongside an aging elephant Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), a posh and pampered poodle Snickers (voiced by Helen Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken Henrietta (voiced by Chaka Khan), a neurotic seal Frankie (voiced by Mike White), a playful parrot Thelma (voiced by Phillipa Soo), and a miniature fire-truck driving rabbit Murphy (voiced by Ron Funches) or simply just hanging out in his cage with his closest pal, a wise-cracking stray dog named Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito).
But their act has been clearly suffering financially, as it has been playing to increasingly sparse crowds, and in a desperate bid to save from ruin, Mack introduces an adorable yet clearly abused baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince), to the show, with the little one quickly becoming the star of the show by successfully pulling in the crowds again.
While Ivan initially can’t help but feel jealous over being dethroned, his life takes a different perspective when a dying Stella makes him promise to find a way to free Ruby from the life of captivity she suffered through. And when Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the precocious daughter of their caring handler, George (Ramon Rodriguez), provides him with a set of art tools, Ivan realizes that he may have finally found a way to deliver his message of their longing freedom to the world.
By placing Ivan and his collection of animal friends at the forefront of the film’s narrative, this film is everything Dumbo should have been, and then some. Like the book, the film also managed to hook me from the beginning thanks to the CGI/animation of all the animals and a cast with voices to give the non-human characters such grand personalities. Here, Ivan’s expressive eyes pierce through you as Sam Rockwell’s voice shares his thoughts and the memories of his family as he recalls the time he spent playing in the mud, the love his father showered on him, and the day Ivan was captured but ended up finding a sweet home with Mack and his ex-wife, Helen (Hannah Bourne).
The dialogue between and among all of the animals brings us into their intrinsic world making us privy to their thoughts and emotions. It is this anthropomorphic perspective that allows us to relate to all of the creatures, rooting for them to somehow escape and be free.
To the film’s credit, director Sharrock gives the issue of captivity more nuance than just saying that people who put animals in cages are bad, and animals should always be in the wild. In comparison to the book, the film softens the character of Mack, dialing down the wrong doing he displays in the pages, but here instead we see that Mack really cares for his animals, and though his weaker moments depict him as a bit heartless when it comes to pushing baby elephant Ruby too far, it is clear that he’s just concerned that the circus will shut down, he’ll have to lay off his loyal workers, and he won’t be able to care for the animals.
Sure, the film lacks an amount of scope as the idea of an artistic gorilla who paints beautiful pictures could have expanded into a lot more. But stripped of these superfluous elements, the film focuses on its strong emotional core that circumvents its otherwise-predictable story. Ivan’s relationships with Stella and Ruby are particularly gut-punching, which calls back to an earlier confession that he feels he has nothing to protect in captivity. The film also includes a lot of extra fluff like side characters, backstories, one-line zingers, and more, something the film could do have done without, but there are also enough earnest emotional moments to save it.
The only fault I found with the film was how, in comparison to an already relatively short book, rushed it seemed especially in his development of art, and how it refused to flesh out the characters of Julia and George, who play an extremely large part of the novel. Yes, it also features the style of emotional manipulation Disney has been perfecting for the last nine decades, but, sometimes, I guess you just have to accept it depending on the theme.
Voice acting wise, Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast and is ably supported by Brooklynn Prince and Danny DeVito. In a brief but memorable performance, Angelina Jolie (who also serves as one of the film’s producers) instills Stella with the kind of calm, soothing wisdom you’d expect from an elephant in the twilight years of her life. The maternal role fits Jolie like a glove and her instant protective chemistry with Prince is particularly endearing. While in other roles, Helen Mirren, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo and Mike White, are relatively underused.
The human cast is very minimal, and Bryan Cranston, being an engaging performer brings a certain levity to his character while Ramon Rodriguez and Ariana Greenblatt bring a good amount of empathy with them. On the whole, ‘The One and Only Ivan’ is an entirely delightful and endlessly charming film that will entertain both kids and adults.
Directed – Thea Sharrock
Rated – PG
Run Time – 95 minutes