REVIEW: The One And Only Ivan – Recapturing Early 2000’s Disney Feel

The One and Only Ivan isn’t the year’s splashy summer movie, but it might be one with the most heart, and in this summer of streaming it now has a chance to shine.

The One and Only Ivan is the latest in a long line of films that were supposed to be released theatrically this year that got moved to streaming. This is the second film Disney has opted to move from its 2020 theatrical release calendar to Disney+ this summer after Artemis Fowl, and will soon be followed by Mulan (that one you will have to pay for). But unlike Artemis Fowl, that appears to be dumped because it would have been a major flop released at any time of the year, (also it was awful), The One and Only Ivan is actually good. Yet it still may have gotten lost in the shuffle, because it isn’t big enough and feels more like a Disney film from a time gone by. One that may not rush viewers to a theater, but maybe a place on Disney+ will give it a much-needed home.

The Walt Disney Company is now one of the biggest film studios with some of the biggest IP’s in film history, giving films huge budgets. Here,  The One and Only Ivan feels very much like a film that the studio would have made back in the ’50s and ’60s when Walt was still alive (a story of animals with interesting talents) but also feels very much in tone, spirit, and even visual presentation to the live-action mid-budget family films the studio made in the ’90s or early to mid-2000s. Your Airbud, Bridge to Terabithia, and Holes. The type of film that can be enjoyed by families that don’t need big-budget action to entertain, just compelling characters and a heartfelt story.

Based on the children’s book of the same name written by K.A. Applegate and inspired by a true story, Ivan (Sam Rockwell) is a silverback gorilla performing at a circus inside the Big Top Mall for Mack (Bryan Cranston) and a bunch of other animals. Ivan enjoys his status as the main star but with the circus facing tough times, Mack decides to bring in a new addition to increase buzz: a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooyklnn Pierce). While initially annoyed by Ruby taking his place, Ivan begins to care for the baby elephant. He starts confronting his own past before the circus and makes a promise to a friend he will help Ruby get free. Ivan begins to express himself through art pieces, that draw interest from the public and raises awareness in the circus that could maybe provide Ivan and his friends with a way to freedom.

The screenplay is by Mike White (who also lends his voice to the seal Frankie), whose past writing credits include Beatriz at Dinner, Brad’s Status (which he also directed), and most fittingly School of Rock. Like School of Rock, this is a family film but it doesn’t appear to be one that talks down to kids. It is funny but also has sincere moments that speak to kids and adults, balancing childhood innocence with the reality of adulthood. White’s family films are silly but still maintain an edge to them. Yes, I know he wrote The Emoji Movie as well, but after just how good Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse was we’ve decided to sort of forget about that film and give everyone involved a pass (except T.J. Miller for reasons).

Thea Sharrock is at the helm and marks her second feature film (her first was the 2016 romantic drama Me Before You) and here imbues the film with a sincere heart. Sharrock has about twenty years of experience as a theater director and that shows in how she stages the scenes with the animals. Even though these are CGI animals the framing and blocking are similar to a play. There are many quiet moments of the animals just talking, and Sharrock is a confident enough director to trust that kids will sit through these scenes because of how sympathetic the characters are and that the CGI animation will keep them fascinated and entertained.

The animals themselves are all impressive feats of computer animation, and because Ivan is a gorilla, it allows his face to emote more believably than the 2019 Lion King. Here the animals look real, but they still feel slightly animated to allow them a range of expression and personality that feels more akin to the 2016 Jungle Book. The animals themselves are all entertaining and have some good voice work.

Rockwell as Ivan is a fascinating choice, because his voice doesn’t at first scream mighty silverback gorilla, but that is part of the point. Ivan acts tough but is a sweet, goofy, insecure, and lovable soul with an artistic flair. They needed an actor who could be charming while also semi childish, and Rockwell’s vocals carry the performance. Angelina Jolie is the older elephant Stella, whose soft vocals and comforting hand seem akin to Debbie Reynolds in the animated Charlotte’s Web. The Flordia Project‘s Brooklynn Prince voices the baby elephant Ruby, whose performance is so sweet and touching you want to come protect her. Chaka Khan makes the few moments she has as the chicken Henrietta worth it. Ron Funches might be my favorite as Murphy the rabbit, who is part of a scene in the second act that had me both terrified and giggling at how absurdly cute it was (Funches is probably one of the funniest voice actors working today and his version of King Shark on Harley Quinn is easily the best incarnation of the character). Phillipa Soo voices the parrot Thelma, and between this and Hamilton earlier for Disney+ I hope she gets a similar deal to Donald Glover where they put him in many of their projects, because she deserves it.

Helen Mirren also voices a poodle named Snickers but she doesn’t get much to do in the film. Danny DeVito is the voice of Bob the stray dog, and he might be one of the film’s mixed bags. DeVito is no stranger to voice work, and he fits the character well, but Bob never quite materializes as a character. His nature as a stray dog actually has chances to provide an interesting commentary/opposing viewpoint for the animals who want to be free since he was freed, but not by his own choice. He is looking for a home, but the film only pays some lip service to that idea.

Honestly, if there is one weak point in the film it is the fact that, because of its nature as a Disney family film, it can’t quite go into some of the darker material the story may require about some of the ethical treatment of animals that hangs over the proceedings. Sometimes they are able to effectively communicate this with a less-is-more approach, like in a flashback scene with Ivan as a baby gorilla, that plays out in his point of view and is heartbreaking and easily identifiable what is happening without needing to show anything explicit. In another sequence, Mack tries to train Ruby and Ivan gets upset with how Mack is overworking her. It appears the film is skirting the line with talking about animal abuse but doesn’t quite get into it other than inferring Mack is just trying to work. To the film’s credit, they never play Mack as an evil character, which in a lesser film he easily could have been. While he does care for the animals’ well being and does have a real love for Ivan, he is still profiting off them and needs them to perform to keep the business afloat. So it is a complicated tricky dynamic between him and the animals. A lot of this complexity probably owes to Cranston’s performance, who gives the character a warmth while also not shying away from his more sleek businessman side with something always going on underneath.

It is the thematic undercurrent of the film that makes it feel right at home with Disney. The film is inspired by a true story about a gorilla named Ivan in the ’60s. Ivan’s real life and the story have some similarities but of course, the real-life one has more ups and downs. The idea of Ivan’s painting, and what the film posits art is, is a way to express how one wants the world to be. Not an entirely original idea but it is an important message, especially for children. Art is a program that tends to be cut first in school, and careers in the arts are often looked down upon because they traditionally don’t seem to have an immediate tactile value like other career choices do. Many kids, despite their passion for art, tend to be discouraged from it in life, and that’s a shame. Even if it is just for yourself whatever art you do can be a healthy form of self-expression and that should be encouraged. We need artists, that can help shape wonderful stories to delight us and maybe make something, no matter how small, to spark a piece of positive change. The art you make, as long as it speaks to one person, matters.

The One and Only Ivan is a film that really spoke to me. It reminded me of being a kid again. Reminded me of the films that as a kid I would see advertised on Disney Channel with behind the scenes looks and special commercials. The types of films my grandparents would take me to see on the weekends when I went to visit them. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve been robbed of summer, and the choices of new ‘summer movies’ have been limited, so really any movie that can spur any emotion out of me seems like a big deal. But capturing a specific feeling of being a kid again, with family members, some of whom are no longer here with me, that was special. I had a great time and I would highly recommend the film to families looking for some fun time together. Enjoy it and each other’s company.