•Now Available To Stream On Disney+
“The One and Only Ivan” has something in common with the new “Planet Of The Apes” films, besides having a primate be it’s lead star. It’s the fact that both films are done with a completely flawless blend of CGI and live action. Based on the real life story and children’s novel illustrated by Patricia Castelao and written by K. A. Applegate. It was originally set to be a theatrical release for Disney, until those plans were sidelined like many by the pandemic, has led to the film’s debut on their Disney+ streaming service. Given a fairly flat direction by British theater director Thea Sharrock and adapted by Mike White (screenwriter and actor in “School Of Rock”). While his script has got problems, Mike White can create soft and emotional moments that speaks to the pain of captivity, without having to delve into clichés. White sticks to the good old Disney playbook of tragedy and redemption. But also begins to explore the human exploitation of animals and doesn’t shy away from showing the sadness that creeps into the lives of these creatures. There is a very big scene, one that is certainly what the whole film really relies on that is smartly played not for surprise or for laughs, but for poignancy and beauty. And wow is it beautiful. It’s a very gentle picture, without much in the way of dramatic escalation. Although the visuals are truly impressive, actor Bryan Cranston gives it his all in an uplifting arc of a story that is filled with warm and not over showy voice work from an all-star cast. I just don’t see it warranting a more than once watch. This is the one and only time I’ll be watching “The One and Only Ivan”.
When I was a kid animals in live-action movies who start talking to one another, didn’t bother me or phase me. I didn’t know any better and I was entertained by it. The older I got I thought “boy this is silly” and it just wasn’t the same from when I was a kid. Talking animal films are still popular as ever and having seen quite a few in the past years. I don’t find them so much silly anymore, perhaps even more so now that we have the technology to make them look so convincingly real.
Take the new “Planet Of The Apes” films for example. It’s talking apes done with no costume work like the 1968 film and instead done with a completely flawless blend of CGI and live action. The new Disney+ original movie titled, “The One and Only Ivan” has that exact movie magic to share with the new “Planet Of The Apes” films. Sure the dialogue of “The One and Only Ivan” isn’t on the level of “Planet Of The Apes”, but it has it’s moments of snappy and sometimes very sappy animal banter, that might have the grown-ups rolling their eyes or bringing a tear to it. All the while the little ones will be adored by the animals.
This is Disney so you know that “The One and Only Ivan” will be a sweet and lovely story. But it’s also funny, filled with warm, but not over showy voice work from an all-star cast and features a cool epilogue in which we learn the tale is actually based on the real-life story and children’s novel written by K. A. Applegate and illustrated by Patricia Castelao of Ivan a western lowland gorilla. Ivan who was brought from Africa to the States as a baby and spent some 27 years in a concrete enclosure at a shopping center in Tacoma. Ivan headlined shows in the tradition of PT Barnum (except on a smaller scale), before animal welfare activists successfully campaigned to have him moved to an outdoor habitat where he could be free.
Even though it’s based on a true story, I’m pretty sure Ivan didn’t speak nor did he sound like Academy Award winner Sam Rockwell. Whether this is also true or not I’m not sure of but Ivan is shown to have friends like a full grown Elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie who also produces the movie), Snickers an aristocratic poodle (Helen Mirren), a chatty chicken named Henrietta (singer Chaka Khan) and a mangy mutt of a best friend who gets all the funny lines named Bob (Danny DeVito in his second role voicing a dog after 1993’s “Look Who’s Talking Now”).
Ivan and his pals have an owner and ringmaster in the increasingly desperate Mack (Bryan Cranston). Mack has cared for Ivan since he was a baby and has a personality of somewhere between kind and cruel when it comes to treating his prized headlining talent. While Mack genuinely cares about Ivan, he mostly regards Ivan as his next meal ticket and it never occurs to Mack that these magnificent creatures are being enslaved in cages.
Just as Stella is slowly slipping away, Mack brings in a new headliner who becomes an instant money machine: an impossibly cute baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince of “The Florida Project”). Stella, who remembers when she was living in the wild, makes Ivan promise he will figure out a way to spare Ruby from a lifetime of captivity. When Ivan discovers he has the talent for drawing, he uses the skill to communicate with the humans and spark a rebellion to free all of Mack’s circus animals.
It’s said that “The One and Only Ivan” was originally set to be a theatrical release for Disney, until those plans were sidelined like many by the pandemic, which led to the film’s debut on the Disney+ streaming service. I’m pretty sure that had this movie gone theatrical it wouldn’t have been an enormous success but a mediocre one. With Disney+ now at over 60 million subscribers, it’ll give the film a much better success rate pulling in viewers than the originally planned theatrical release.
Given a fairly flat direction by British theater director Thea Sharrock and adapted by Mike White (screenwriter and actor in “School Of Rock”). It seems as though White doesn’t know how to treat Bryan Cranston’s Mack, who’s at times played as something of a villain who is quick to exploit the animals for his show. He’s short tempered with the animals, but not to the point of being a monster and he’s not much of a personality, just a bland protagonist with unexplored motivations.
There’s also the issue of the actual mall escape sequence which feels very short and a waste of screen time. The hour and half picture has the majority of it’s running time, dealing with the animals in their cages and recalling their experiences before being caged. But Mike White can create soft and emotional moments that speaks to the pain of captivity, without delving into clichés. In fact one scene in particular towards the end, between Mack and Ivan is something really special and Bryan Cranston gives it his all.
“The One and Only Ivan” sticks to the Disney playbook of tragedy and redemption. It also begins to explore the human exploitation of animals and doesn’t shy away from showing the sadness that creeps into the lives of these creatures. That sadness is probably not a tone that’ll be appreciated by younger viewers who came for talking animals, but it’s one that gives the film more nuance than one had thought. When Ivan’s big scene of being an artist is revealed, the scene is played not for surprise or for laughs, but for poignancy and beauty. And wow is it beautiful.
I can’t help to think that the tale works better as a book, dedicated to understanding the hearts and minds of everyone in play. As a movie, it doesn’t show enough interest in the world it creates and when we finally learn the real-world inspiration for the feature during the end credits. It reveals a better story about animal concern that was passed over for the talking animal routine.
It’s a very gentle picture, without much in the way of dramatic escalation. Although the visuals are truly impressive and the story has an uplifting arc. I just don’t see it warranting a more than once watch. This is the one and only time I’ll be watching “The One and Only Ivan”.
GRADE: ★★☆☆☆ (2 out of 5)