Like other movies before it, The One and Only Ivan was supposed to get a theatrical release this summer but instead got its debut on Disney+ last Friday. While this is great news for the streaming service’s subscribers, it is a shame that many others will miss this great family film. The story of a very special gorilla is a live action/CGI creation but unlike the studios’ recent slate of recreated or reimagined films based from earlier animated projects, Ivan is an original film and is even inspired by a true story.
You may not even be aware of this gem, and that’s a shame. The trailers for this family film do not do it justice either. You may think, “Oh, great. Another talking animal movie.” But Ivan’s story is a lot deeper than that and the messages about friendship, hope and accepting oneself for who they are make this a movie not to be missed.
The real Ivan lived in captivity at the B&I shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington for 27 years. This is where he learned to draw and local people would come to the mall just to see Ivan. (His real home was a lot less impressive than the one shown on the screen.) Ivan’s story was the inspiration for Katherine Applegate’s Newberry award-winning book, The One and Only Ivan which was published in 2013. Although the source material is true, Applegate created a wholly fictionalized story about Ivan and his friends at the mall and their pursuit for freedom. Having never read the book, I can only imagine that Disney has presented a well-made adaptation.
Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is a 400 pound silverback gorilla who was saved from poachers in the jungle and was raised in captivity by Mack (Bryan Cranston). Years later, Mack created a circus show that was placed at the Big Top shopping Mall. Using Ivan as the main draw, the circus also features acts by Stella the elephant (Angelina Jolie) who makes her appearance with Snickers the poodle (Helen Mirren) riding on top; Henrietta the baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan); Murphy the rabbit (Ron Funches) who drives a firetruck and Frankie the seal (Mike White who also wrote the film’s screenplay). Also in the mix is Bob the homeless dog (Danny DeVito), who isn’t part of the show, but very much a part of this family.
This small circus’ staff includes an inept security guard and the Jack-of-all-trades George (Ramon Rodriguez) who often brings his daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) along to watch and draw the animals. Fascinated by her drawing skills, Julia gives Ivan a few crayons and paper to play with. At first, he feels timid to draw anything and Bob can’t figure out what Ivan drew. But Julia spots a beetle right away and Bob says, “I guess it takes a real artist to understand another artist’s work.”
Over the years, the popular circus has lost some of its luster with fans and if sales don’t perk up soon, this circus will have to close up shop. Mack purchases a new baby elephant, Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to spice up the show because people love baby animals. At first Ivan is resentful of Ruby stealing his limelight, but Ruby’s constant questions about where all of the other animals came get him to start thinking about his own days in the jungle as a young gorilla. Soon, he realizes that there is more to life than putting on a show and Ivan plots an escape for him and his animal friends.
Directed by Thea Sharrock, The One and Only Ivan is rare piece of movie magic that can speak to children and adults at the same time. Some of the jokes are simple that kids can appreciate (Why did the chicken cross the road) but are done is such a way that mom and dad won’t feel like they are watching a kiddie film. It also features good humans with flaws. Often a film like this will features heroes and villains with nothing in between. But Ivan doesn’t really have either. Mack is a kind ringmaster who truly loves his animals, but sometimes he works them too hard and loses his temper. Even so, Cranston is able to play the character in such a way that viewers still have empathy for the man. Stella says it best: “Not all humans are bad. Some will surprise you.” Ivan is produced by Allison Shearmur, Angelina Jolie and Brigham Taylor, who also served as a producer on the recent Christopher Robin movie.
The voices of the characters are spot on. Chaka Khan is a diva even in chicken form. Mirren is underused as Snickers the poodle, but the best voice/character casting has to go to DeVito. Over the years the actor has found a way to present a rough, grouchy man with questionable motivations into a softer, more likable character with heart. This type of character can also be seen is Disney’s other underappreciated circus production of the live action adaptation of Dumbo, also currently streaming on Disney+.
The One and Only Ivan is a simple tale with powerful messages that will stick you long after the film is over. It’s an inspiring story of friendship and keeping one’s promises. Despite the storyline about wild animals living in captivity, this movie never gets political nor does it come off as if it has an agenda. The part of the human girl Julia is well-used in moderation. She is cute and important to the story, but Disney doesn’t try to make her the hero as is often the case with other moves. And yes, the CGI animals brought a few tears to my eyes and will no doubt will do the same for you.
(Main image: Walt Disney Pictures)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.