Starring Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Ramón Rodríguez. Directed by Thea Sharrock.
With the opening of cinemas still in doubt, and the ongoing issue of not being able to properly go back to filming, some streaming services are desperate for new content to upload. Disney, wisely, is cutting some losses and punting films that would probably flop at the Box Office onto Disney+, the Hamilton live stream and Artemis Fowl being two examples, and now we have the next one.
The One and Only Ivan is an adaptation of the children’s book by Katherine Applegate that follows silverback Gorilla Ivan, the star of a shopping mall circus, as he tries to protect and free new elephant Ruby.
Disney might have found themselves worried about releasing a film that has animals with human side characters, considering the absolute flop of Dolittle some few months ago, and the thought of another film with a cute little elephant, Danny DeVito and a circus may have brought back bad Dumbo memories. Nonetheless, the release of Thea Sharrock’s second feature to streaming might make it a safe bet.
The film is an easy pitch to children — following a gorilla in captivity as he dreams of being free — and the film is one that the entire family can enjoy, as despite its PG rating it feels incredibly U rated. The animals of the film are well-rendered, with their CGI going away from the deadness that plagued The Lion King but never going into full Andy Serkis realism. They’re cartoony, but not too much.
Sam Rockwell is perfectly cast as easy-going Ivan, a gorilla who acts as an aggressive ape but is actually more interested in being an artist. He’s supported perfectly by Brooklynn Prince as Ruby the baby elephant and Danny DeVito as stray dog Bob. In addition, the supporting voice cast boasts Angelina Jolie, Helen Mirren, Chaka Khan, Phillipa Soo and Mike White, although they are relatively underused.
The human cast is very minimal, but there is Ramon Rodriguez and Ariana Greenblatt as two people who befriend the animals and they bring a good amount of empathy with them. Where the film both works and falters is with Bryan Cranston. As circus owner Mack, there’s a problem where the film doesn’t know how cruel to make him. He’s a girdle wearing, toupee owner who is keeping animals in captivity, yet except for one scene involving the overworking of little Ruby hinting at darkness in him, there’s never anything too upsetting which muddies the water of the desire to be free.
Despite this flaw in the writing, Cranston is such a good actor that even with this uneven character he manages to imbue him with humanity, the darkness is never too dark, and more often it’s a case of stress that makes him seem like a bad person. In fact, the film is overall very balanced in its view, communicating to the audience the message that humans can be both good and bad to animals.
The film also lacks an amount of scope. Perhaps this is because the creators didn’t want it falling into Dumbo territory, but the idea of an artistic gorilla who paints beautiful pictures could have made for a fun, heartwarming story. There are moments: when it’s down to Ivan and Ruby talking about discovering they care for one another, the film is on steady footing, and Sharrock knows how to handle the CGI within an emotional story.
As far as a film about talking animals and the humans around them goes, the film is a treat. It’s great for families with very young children, and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome at ninety minutes. Plus, there’s enough knockabout humour and funny animals to keep the little ones entertained, while the story of using your talent to better someone else will resonate with the adults.
Sharrock has managed to take Mike White’s script and make a film about people and how we treat not only each other, but our animal friends. For that, it’s a glorious and enjoyable romp that will bring a smile to faces of even the most cynical of adults. And it’s done well not to end up a Dolittle style disaster.