The One and Only Ivan is a heartfelt Disney effort that goes for being a tearjerker, funny talking animated animal movie, a story about working class malaise in small locally run showbusiness, a classical Dumbo tale about the wonderment of circus beasts, and also a lesson about the morality of keeping animals in cages. It is a bit of a delicate balancing act that the film sort of successfully manages. Ultimately, Ivan is a film that has a sweet center although it never quite reaches being an extraordinarily transcendent talking animal fantasy, it has solid moments.
Mack (Bryan Cranston) the owner of the Big Top Shopping Mall also runs an (incredibly small) circus attraction at the back, with several animals like a seal working a beach ball, a rabbit driving a miniature firetruck, an elegant elderly elephant, Stella (Angelina Jolie), and the main attraction is Ivan the silverback gorilla (Sam Rockwell). Ivan’s gig isn’t that hard, he just comes out, hollers and beats his chest which looks impressive. Business isn’t going well so Mack purchases a new baby elephant, Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). Meanwhile, Mack’s assistant, George (Ramon Rodriquez), has a daughter, Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), who gives the gorilla crayons and Ivan starts to draw pictures. Soon business is again booming but Ivan and Ruby yearn to be free of the small confines of the circus. With the help of a talkative stray dog, who Ivan randomly names Bob (Danny DeVito), they plot their escape but there may be nowhere for them to go considering they live in a suburban strip mall.
There are some impressive computer graphics that bring the animals to life although it is a bit awkward since they look so realistic and yet they talk with celebrity voices. The animals in Ivan are supposed to be realistic but they talk with each other in human voices, an animated kids movie conceit that was more startling in live action when Babe did it. Although one wonders if the animals could talk in English with celebrity voices that would be a hell of a way to garner up even more attention for the attraction if they admitted it instead of Ivan doing finger-painting.
Although the animals looking “realistic” does sort of impede the emoting capability of the non-gorilla characters. Jolie’s elephant cannot emote, because its an elephant and it its trunk gets in the way of its mouth moving. So conveying emotion is left up to Jolie’s vocal performance which is nicely world weary. The physical emoting from the smaller elephant works better and Prince is rather chipper. Hellen Mirren voices a prissy poodle, sounding high and mighty. There is a decent performance by Rockwell as Ivan, the gorilla’s facial expressions can emote better than an elephant, and he puts in a few different layers to Ivan’s voice. DeVito as the stray sidekick dog is energetic and supplies a few laughs.
Cranston as Mack is playing yet another complex good guy/bad guy main character, sort of a Disney version of the moral ambiguity of Walter White. Interestingly, while he starts the movie an unabashed lover of circus entertainment, as the animals yearn from freedom he seems more like he’s keeping them prisoners for his own benefit. The elephant Stella eventually passes away due to an unspecified foot ailment and while it’s never explicitly connected, when Mack is bossing Ruby around to stop her foot on a bench it seems that is how he worked Stella to death. Rodriquez’s George is more sympathetic as can see the strain the animals are under even when his boss can not. Greenblatt plays a kid whose dad seems incredibly lackadaisical letting her get to close to a caged gorilla but nothing ever goes wrong.
There is an interesting thematic arc to the movie that it starts off as a low rent working class strip mall version of Dumbo but eventually goes on to admit that keeping animals in tiny cages in a small performance area is a pretty awful thing to do. The movie is darker than the good time the ads sell it but Disney movies generally have a dark subtext to them. What works well is the larger world Ivan eventually sees has a good pay off. When the animals escape from the circus mall, it seems a wee bit like a live action rip-off of Finding Nemo where the group of chatty animals embark on an adventure in the outside world. But the twist is the very tragic moment when they find that the “forest” outside is just a small block of trees and they are trapped a modern city. The confined life that Ivan and friends live in adds to a closed off feel which leads to a final scene that is genuinely soaring and heartwarming.
The One and Only Ivan has a progressive message about how keeping animals in captivity can be hurtful. It doesn’t make Mack a sneering bad guy, just someone who can’t see what his dreams of showbusiness are doing to the animals under his care. Sure, the movie may lean a bit too hard on celebrity voiced talking animals to carry it but when the story gets to its climatic point, it really works.
The One and Only Ivan
Director: Thea Sharrock
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston and Phillipa Soo