Disney does affectionate stories about talking animals better than anybody else. It seems that Disney+ is now becoming a vessel for the gentler examples of this end of the Mouse House’s oevure. After last year’s live-action remake of The Lady and the Tramp comes new adventure The One and Only Ivan. Helmed by Me Before You director Thea Sharrock, it’s adapted from the children’s novel of the same name, which was itself inspired by the true tale of a captive gorilla who became a cause célèbre for animal rights groups in the 1980s.
The fictional Ivan is likeably voiced by Sam Rockwell and is a fairly contented gorilla, serving as the main attraction at a shopping mall circus run by Mack (Bryan Cranston, sporting a crimson ringmaster jacket and a cod British accent) and spending the evenings chatting to stray dog pal Bob (Danny DeVito). The circus is down on its luck until Mack acquires baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), who brings the crowds flooding in. Ruby, though, harbours a fascination with the wild and a desire to escape the confines of the mall.
There’s an easy-going sense of heart at the core of The One and Only Ivan, which gently teases out the personalities of its animal characters through the well-cast voice performances. It’s a stellar ensemble, which also includes Chaka Khan as a chicken, Angelina Jolie as a regal adult elephant and scriptwriter Mike White as a neurotic seal. Cranston holds everything together with a gloriously theatrical performance that walks a fine line between genuine animal affection and the inherent exploitation of someone who’s making a living by using these creatures for entertainment.
Indeed, that element of the story sits slightly awkwardly here. The movie never outright condemns this circus – most of the animals seem pleased with their lot in life – other than in brief scenes in which Cranston pushes Ruby to learn tricks. For the most part, it seems immersed in the magic of the Big Top, and so it seems like an abrupt shift when the animals decide they want to escape into the wild. “Humans are the worst, cockroaches have bigger hearts,” jibes DeVito, but we’ve seen little evidence of this. The inherently gentle approach of Disney sits awkwardly with the demands of the story.
But there’s admirable charm in the voice performances throughout, with the CGI rendering of the characters accomplished with considerable flair. Rockwell seemingly relishes the chance to play a character more amiable than his usual array of racists and villains and The Florida Project standout Prince imbues little Ruby with all of the cuteness and childlike innocence that the character needs.
The One and Only Ivan is an unusual movie, which constantly seems to be embroiled in a scuffle with its own light-hearted tone. Its animal-based comedy gets it through, though, with Rockwell tugging at the heartstrings with his simian sweetness. Sharrock struggles with the harsher edges of some of the material, but the final moments provide the requisite soaring emotion and a mid-credits history lesson reveals the fascinating true story behind it all. Perhaps that’s the story they should’ve told here.
Dir: Thea Sharrock
Scr: Mike White
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Brooklynn Prince, Ariana Greenblatt, Danny DeVito, Angelina Jolie, Ramon Rodriguez, Helen Mirren, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo, Chaka Khan, Mike White
Prd: Angelina Jolie, Allison Shearmur, Brigham Taylor
DOP: Florian Ballhaus
Music: Craig Armstrong
Run time: 95 minutes
The One and Only Ivan is available on Disney+ now.