Sam Rockwell … Ivan (voice)
Directed by Thea Sharrock
The One and Only Ivan Review
There’s a moment in Disney’s The One and Only Ivan in which a young elephant named Ruby arrives at the downtrodden Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade to join a small collection of circus animals led by the titular Ivan, a giant gorilla who has spent a majority of his life in captivity. As Ruby recoils inside her cage, Mack, the circus owner, enlists the aid of Stella, an older, much larger elephant, who uses her trunk to calm the infant while the other animals silently observe from their cages.
Ruby and Stella are entirely CGI, but under Thea Sharrock’s assured direction, realized by Florian Ballhaus’ sparkling cinematography and Craig Armstrong’s magical score, the sequence enchants in a way few modern special FX driven blockbusters do — specifically, last year’s visually exciting, but ultimately bland remake of The Lion King.
Indeed, the effects work in Ivan are truly astonishing. The animals, particularly Ivan himself, look and behave like the real thing, even whilst conveying very human expressions brought to life by a voice cast that includes Sam Rockwell as Ivan, Danny DeVito as stray dog Bob, Angelina Jolie (who also produced) as aging elephant Stella, and the great Helen Mirren as (what else) a posh poodle named Snickers. The best bits are those in which this all-star lineup of circus performers gather to tell stories of their past lives outside the zoo before they were locked in cages and forced to entertain themselves by watching TV on tire swings.
Therein lies the true story of The One and Only Ivan — and, perhaps, its greatest flaw — a film that can best be summed up as an enchanting, even emotional, two-hour ad campaign decrying animals in captivity. There’s even a phone number at the end people can call to make donations. The message itself isn’t wrong, but the film has nothing else to say beyond what we’ve heard in similar films dating back to 1966’s Born Free and echoed in Free Willy, Babe,and dozens more. Except, where those films relied on a ticking clock — read: death! or evil corporations! — to propel their narratives, Ivan navigates a decidedly less visceral route by denouncing humans in general. “Cockroaches have more heart,” an animal says at one point.
The message is clear: animals in captivity = bad. Get it? Not exactly bold Hollywood storytelling.
In fact, Ivan mostly ignores the dramatic beats usually reserved for these types of films and settles for something more, ah, watered down. Instead of an out-and-out villain, for example, we get Mack, the man who raised, loves, and exploits Ivan via a modest circus show designed around the gentle gorilla’s “talents” — Ivan beats his chest and roars at the conclusion of each performance. Mack isn’t a bad guy, the film explains. He’s simply a man trying to make his way in the circus-verse even if he behaves like a dilapidated version of Hugh Jackman’s Greatest Showman — a film that, ironically, savored the glorious heyday of the original circus attraction and is also streaming on Disney+. Come on Hollywood, pick a side!
Unfortunately, as public interest in Ivan declines, Mack becomes increasingly desperate. At one point, in a bit of Heisenberg-level rage, the man goes a little too far in his handling of Ruby; an event that spurs Ivan and the rest of the circus gang to abandon their cages and seek refuge elsewhere. Kudos to Disney for not berating us with gratuitous man-on-infant-elephant violence, but Mack, as portrayed by Bryan Cranston, is rather toothless; and more of a minor hindrance to the plot than an outright obstacle our heroes must overcome. In fact, his big decision at the finale is reminiscent of that scene in Joe vs. the Volcano when Tom Hanks, presented with the opportunity to “live like a king and die like a man” by sacrificing himself into a volcano in order to save the island of Waponi Woo and its inhabitants, merely shrugs and says, “Ok, I’ll do it.”
As such, the film moves from one moment to the next without much narrative pull as it’s only a matter of time before the happy ending inevitably arrives. We learn that Ivan possesses artistic talents as evidenced by his ability to draw images of jungles on the zoo windows; and learn the tragic truth behind his chewed-up doll, Tag. Such scenes are designed and executed extremely well and pack quite the emotional punch, but the film as a whole mostly meanders about without much to say beyond its initial message.
As told, The One and Only Ivan presents a simple 90-minute romp that is sure to delight kids with its colorful characters and eye-popping visuals and stir the emotions (and wallets) of adults. That it lacks the more engaging theatrics of, say, Dumbo, or the great Chicken Run isn’t necessarily an out-and-out criticism. Ivan simply wants to leave his cage, smell some flowers, and see that clear blue sky in all its glory. What’s wrong with that?
The One and Only Ivan will begin streaming on Disney+ this Friday!