I have the book of The One and Only Ivan by author Mike White in my middle school classroom library so I recognized the title when I saw it was going to be a movie on Disney +. However, I have not actually read the novel.
Surprisingly, the film starts with a “based on real events” tag so, since this is about talking animals, I immediately doubted that claim. Turns out, it was the basic story behind the movie that was the true story (as we see in the end credits) and the talking animals part was author’s craft. That’s fine.
The One and Only Ivan is the story of a gorilla named Ivan (Sam Rockwell)m raised from a little gorilla by Mack (Bryan Cranston). Mack took Ivan and several other animals and opened a mall called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, where Ivan was the main attraction. Among a group of animals that had minor tricks to do, Ivan would come out and growl and pound his chest at the end.
Business was suffering, so Mack bought a cute baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to amp up the awwww-factor of the show. Ruby bonded with Ivan and Ivan’s other friend, a nameless stray dog (Danny DeVito).
When Mack’s niece Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), an inspiring artist of her own, passed her old crayons to Ivan and the gorilla showed a propensity to draw. Through this skill and a promise he would make, Ivan realized that the confines of a cage was not what he wanted for himself or for Ruby.
The story is fairly basic and lacks too much of an emotional punch, outside of a couple of well-manipulated scenes. Still, the CGI animals are wonderful (especially when compared to works like the dog from Call of the Wild), and there is enough of a connection to the audience to make this a reasonable family film. There are deeper themes that could have been explored in this, but they do not do so.
The voice and live action cast is stacked. With Sam Rockwell in the lead role of Ivan, they start off strong. Bryan Cranston is always great and here he does an admirable job as Mack. Throw in Danny DeVito, Angelina Jolie, Chaka Khan, and Helen Mirren and you have a great group of actors.
Some of the humor did not work for me (there was a toupee gag that was really out of left field), and the resolution of the story seemed to come about too quickly as well. It did not allow the film’s conflict to grow much before it was resolved. Again, that was fine for what it was, but it prevents the movie from going any deeper.
I would not purchase Disney + to make sure I did not miss The One and Only Ivan, but I already have it and I am not unhappy that I watched it. It is a strong family fare that goes quickly and is worthy of watching on the streaming service.