The One and Only Ivan

For 27 years, a silverback gorilla has lived in suburban shopping mall circus enclosure with a host of other animals.  When owner Mack (Bryan Cranston) acquires a new baby elephant, Ruby (voice of "The Florida Project's" Brooklynn Prince), the gorilla’s old friend, aging elephant Stella (voice of Angelina Jolie), makes a dying wish that the youngster be helped to escape by “The One and Only Ivan.”

Laura's Review: B-

When Katherine Applegate's 2013 Newbery Medal winning novel came out, it was seen as an allegory for slavery with its protagonist ripped from his family and home, then imprisoned for years in forced labor.  Mike White’s ("The Good Girl," "Brad's Status") adaptation softens some of the novel’s more horrific aspects for the film’s Disney family audience, but the message is still here.  If Stella’s ‘Not all humans are bad. They can surprise you,’ wilts under the slavery allegory, it fits right in with the animal rights concept that “Ivan” will imprint on children.

If the film’s trailer gave you a toothache, fear not, as White, good writer that he is, has kept any saccharine quality at bay.  We are introduced to Mack and his family of entertainers off Exit 8 at the Big Top Mall as demand for their old school circus is waning.  Ivan (voice of Sam Rockwell) is content.  Although he’s never understood why audiences want him to be scary, he roars and beats his chest, then chuckles backstage.  He enjoys a close friendship with a scruffy stray (voice of Danny DeVito), who’s presence causes Mack, feeling pinched with expenses, to erupt in over reactive rage.

The entire crew, which includes Henrietta the chicken (voice of Chaka Khan) who plays baseball, Frankie the seal (voice of Mike White) who stresses over balancing his ball, Murphy the bow tied, fire engine-riding rabbit (voice of Ron Funches), Snickers the fancy poodle (voice of Helen Mirren) and Thelma the parrot (voice of “Hamilton’s” Phillipa Soo), is shaken out of their routine with the announcement of a new arrival.  Baby Ruby is cooed over by all, but it is the ailing Stella who comforts her.  In a lovely bit of animation within the live action, Stella’s trunk entwines with Ruby’s in close-up, the appendages looking like creatures unto themselves. 

Ivan is alarmed to learn Ruby has replaced him as the top attraction on Exit 8’s billboard, but the crowds do begin to return, charmed by the shy baby.  But babies grow up and Mack’s ploy is destined to be short-lived.  Ivan has another friend in Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the young daughter of mall employee George (Ramon Rodriguez, “Need for Speed”), who hangs by his enclosure drawing pictures of him and his pal, who is graced with the name ‘Bob.’  One day Mack gives her money to buy crayons and she gifts her used ones to Ivan.  The ape begins to draw and Mack sees a new angle.  Exit 8’s billboard gets another modification.

Director Thea Sharrock ("Me Before You") has pulled all the various elements of the story together in charming fashion without blunting the story’s harsher aspects.  Mack is never a villain, shown early as a loving ‘dad’ to baby Ivan, but he isn’t given a pass either, his attempts to train the reluctant Rose drawing Ivan’s (and our) ire.  Sharrock handles the film’s one death with grace, creating a moment that is melancholy but not traumatic.  The CGI animals all look very real and are seamlessly integrated with the live action.  The Exit 8 billboard is a wonderful chaptering device.  And if Ivan’s solution to Stella’s wish goes comically awry on his first attempt, his ultimate answer is beautifully staged, a restrained yet cinematic highlight.  As Stella foretold, humans will make amends.

Applegate's novel was based on a true story, one which is told, complete with footage of the real gorilla, during the film’s closing credits.  “The One and Only Ivan” may pull some punches, but it has genuine heart.

"The One and Only Ivan" will be available to stream on Disney+ on 8/21/20.