The One and Only Ivan Review: “A Film That Wears its Heart on its Sleeve”
In our ever-continuing series on films that got royally screwed over by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a film that was originally intended for a proper theatrical release about a week ago before obvious circumstances forced it to shift over to Disney+ as the streaming service’s latest original release. The film in question is The One and Only Ivan, an adaptation of the 2012 children’s novel of the same name by author K.A. Applegate. Upon its publication, the book, which was based on the true story of a clever gorilla named Ivan, immediately became a big hit with its target audience and would end up winning the 2013 Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award for children’s literature in the United States. In other words, it was simply another bona fide success for K.A. Applegate, who’s had a respectably lengthy career as a writer. While The One and Only Ivan may be one of her more recent books, folks of my generation will most likely be familiar with one of her most famous works, the Animorphs series from the ’90s, which she co-wrote with her husband Michael Grant. Not only that but the film adaptation of The One and Only Ivan isn’t the first time that she’s worked with Disney since she also notably wrote several literary spin-offs for both Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. But now this brings us to the film adaptation of The One and Only Ivan, which is directed by Thea Sharrock (who had made her directorial debut in 2016 with the romantic drama Me Before You) off a screenplay by veteran screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock). And thanks to both their combined efforts and a solid cast that’s headlined by an impressively stacked voice cast, it’s easy to see why The One and Only Ivan more than succeeds at being an immensely charming family flick.
For the past several years, Ivan the silverback gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) has been the headlining attraction of a daily circus show held at the Big Top Mall in Florida that’s run by his owner Mack (Bryan Cranston), who had raised Ivan since he was a baby. But while Ivan and his fellow performers such as his best friend Stella the elephant (voiced by Angelina Jolie) are more than content with their lives, Mack soon finds himself having to deal with the increasingly likely prospect of dwindling crowds. Luckily for them, Mack ends up finding a new star attraction in Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince), a baby elephant that he purchases from a fledgling circus in New Jersey. And while Ivan is initially displeased with Ruby immediately stealing his thunder as the show’s newest ‘headliner’, her arrival proves to be exactly what they needed to draw in more crowds and he does legitimately begin to grow fond of the young pachyderm. However, despite all the newfound success that their show has managed to achieve, Ruby begins to learn more about the outside world from Stella and what it’s like to truly be ‘free’. Not wanting her to live the rest of her life in captivity in their small enclosure at the mall, Stella personally asks Ivan to take care of Ruby and to ensure that, someday, she’ll be able to be free. And while Ivan is initially unsure if he could even remotely make this happen, Mack’s increasingly inconsiderate behavior towards them is what ultimately convinces him to go through with it for Ruby’s sake. Thus, with the help of the other animals, the circus’ janitor George (Ramón Rodriguez), and George’s daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), Ivan begins to utilize the artistic talents that he’s had since childhood so that the rest of the world can understand their current predicament.
The One and Only Ivan is the very definition of a good-natured family film. It has a pleasantly relaxing pace throughout and is fully anchored by a lovable collection of main characters. And while I’m aware that many have noted that the film tones down some of the darker elements of its source material (i.e. it lessens the severity of Mack’s harsher actions towards his animals, thus making him more of a decent albeit incredibly short-sighted owner rather than a traditionally cruel antagonist), it still hits its big emotional beats quite well. Much of this is due to the film’s excellent cast, both in terms of its human characters and its animal voice actors. When it comes to the former, Bryan Cranston headlines the film nicely as Mack who, as noted earlier, isn’t the same villainous character that he is in the book but still plays a huge role in how many of the story’s most poignant moments pan out. And as for the latter, Sam Rockwell delivers an incredibly earnest and charismatic performance in the title role of Ivan. He’s then backed by a great supporting voice cast that’s full of big names such as Danny DeVito, who plays a stray dog named Bob who isn’t a part of the show but regularly hangs out with Ivan, Angelina Jolie as the wise old Stella, and Helen Mirren as the show’s actual dog performer, Snickers the poodle. Admittedly, most of the other animals don’t get that much to do in the grand scheme of things since the film primarily focuses on the quartet of Ivan, Stella, Ruby, and Bob, but at the very least, it does seem like everyone involved had a great time working on the project. And so, because of all this, The One and Only Ivan is an incredibly sweet and well-made family film that very much wears its heart on its sleeve. It may not be the most groundbreaking or thought-provoking film ever made, but its largely uncynical nature and terrific handling of its pertinent themes make it easy to see why its source material has become a staple of children’s literature.