Based on a true story and originally intended for theatrical release, The One and Only Ivan is unsure where its chief conflict lies and takes far too long to get there
Starring Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Ramón Rodríguez, Ariana Greenblatt, and Bryan Cranston
Based on the children’s novel by K. A. Applegate, which in turn has its basis in the true story of Ivan the gorilla, The One and Only Ivan was originally slated for a theatrical release until the pandemic resulted in it being released on Disney+ instead. Ultimately, this is somewhat of a blessing, as the story simply isn’t epic enough for anything other than sofa viewing.
The One and Only Ivan is focussed around the eponymous silverback gorilla Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), who was raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) and his wife as something of a child substitute. As time wore on, Mack’s devotion to Ivan caused his wife to leave him, and Ivan’s increasing size meant that Mack relocated Ivan into the star attraction at his mall circus. He is joined at the circus by a wise, old and injured elephant, Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), stray dog and best friend Bob (Danny DeVito), as well as a whole host of other whimsical animal creatures, such as Snickers (Helen Mirren), a white poodle; Henrietta (Chaka Khan), a baseball-playing chicken; Murphy (Ron Funches), a white rabbit who can generally be found riding a toy fire engine; Thelma (Phillipa Soo), a talkative macaw; and Frankie (Mike White), a vaguely terrified sea lion who spends his time with a ball balanced on his nose.
This is the status quo that we find Ivan in where the film starts, deeply content in his life, viewing the walls of his enclosure at the mall as his home. It takes new arrival of Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), a baby elephant, and a promise to Stella that has Ivan recalling his youth in the wild, and planning a break for freedom.
The issue is that, somehow, within the hour and a half that this film lasts, there isn’t substantial time for there to feel as if there’s a central conflict. It feels almost as if the film is broken up into smaller events, with the characters just bouncing from one to the next. There seems to be no inner turmoil within Ivan about his status in captivity, and, while the villain of the piece should be Mack, for keeping all of the animals there, the film stops short of ever condemning him, yet also ever adequately explaining or justifying his actions either. This film did have the opportunity to explore the idea of animals being kept confined and in captivity, and also how they are woefully in-equipped to deal with the wild, having become so reliant upon humans, but these concepts are not meaningfully explored.
Really, everything that the viewer needs to know about what’s going to happen in the movie is provided in the trailer. The dramatic moments here are honestly all that the film has to offer, and the highly publicised ideas of Ivan as an artist, as previewed, aren’t really meaningfully explored either. From the trailer, the suggestion is that Ivan is in some way exceptional, and that the film is going to delve into his brilliant, artistic mind, but ultimately, his mural painting is just a minor note.
Despite the capable voice cast and the convincing special effects to create compelling animal characters, The One and Only Ivan never really kicks off. It feels as if it’s constantly in the expository stages of a film, and never really creates any fully rounded or developed characterisation that help you feel that the ending is earned, and with muddied morals about how we should feel about characters like Mack makes the whole affair wholly muddled. Ultimately, being released on Disney+ is probably the best thing that could have happened to The One and Only Ivan, to avoid the scathing eyes of the film critics and ticket payers, if nothing else. Suitable for an evening on the sofa, and not much beyond that.
The One and Only Ivan is streaming now on Disney+.