It’s refreshing to see Disney develop a kids’ movie that isn’t a remake of one of their former animated films and they do so in true Disney style. “The One and Only Ivan” is a charmingly sweet and heartwarming film, based on a true story, that will entertain both kids and adults. The incomparable Mike White adapts the children’s book of the same name by Katherine Applegate to tell the story of a silverback gorilla named Ivan (voice: Sam Rockwell) who lived his days as a circus star at a local mall. Ruby (voice: Brooklyn Prince), a baby elephant joins this performing family and Stella (voice: Angelina Jolie), an adult elephant with a stereotypical great memory, makes Ivan promise to help little Ruby escape the confines of the cage and live out her life in freedom.
The first scene of the film keys us into the fact that the circus at the mall just isn’t doing well; attendance is down, people aren’t even shopping at malls anymore, and Ring Leader Mack (Bryan Cranston) is struggling to make ends meet. In an effort to save the circus, Mack buys an adorable baby elephant, Ruby, who hears stories of freedom from her adoptive mom Stella. (It’s at this point that you know you need a few tissues because this happens in all Disney movies.) Mack and his small crew take good care of the animals in their confines, but it is a special bond between Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the circus’s lighting man’s (Ramon Rodriguez) daughter, and Ivan that propels this story in a new direction. Julia spends hours chatting with Ivan, connecting with him, and eventually sharing her art supplies with this gorilla. His uncanny ability to draw stimulates his memories, but Mack, ever the hustler, sees a new path for his animal kingdom to exploit and that is Ivan’s artistic skills. What happens changes the lives of everyone in the community and all the animals forever.
This heartfelt story hooked me from the beginning thanks to the CGI/animation of all the animals and a cast with voices to give the non-human characters such grand personalities . Ivan’s expressive eyes pierce your own as Rockwell’s voice shares Ivan’s thoughts and memories of his life. Ivan takes us down memory lane as he recalls his family— the time he spent playing in the mud, his love of his father, and the day Ivan became captive. The dialogue between and among all of the animals brings us into their intrinsic world making us privy to their thoughts and emotions. It is this anthropomorphic perspective that allows us to relate to all of the creatures, rooting for them to somehow escape “into the wild” and be “free.”
While the “eyes” have it, the actors bring it up a notch, particularly when you have the likes of Danny DeVito as Bob the Terrier adding a splash of humor and sarcasm to the story. Helen Mirren makes a mark as the pampered poodle Snickers, and Rockwell’s slow, measured, and calm voice gives Ivan, a physically intimidating beast, the heart and soul we all grow to love. (For Chicagoans who had the ability to visit the Lincoln Park Zoo in the 1980’s to see Otto, the head of the silverback gorilla troop, and how he played his audience, you’ll love Ivan even more thanks to your experience.)
The humans do a fine job of it as well. Cranston brings levity to his character who is struggling but possesses a kind heart and Greenblatt is adorable, perfectly cast as the one who connects with a powerful and beautiful creature. The emotional journey we travel with Ivan balances the dramatic with the comedic thanks to the script. Given the entertainment value and message this film has, I’ll even overlook the overpowering, Disney-signature musical score that is more of an onslaught than an augmentation.
“The One and Only Ivan” is a story for everyone. Be sure to watch the credits roll as the story continues. You’ll see images captured from the real Ivan and the story upon which this heartfelt film is based.
3 1/2 Stars Available on Disney+