A gorilla named Ivan tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant named Stella as they hatch a plan to escape from captivity
This is a low-key but high-stakes movie, as a group of animals languishing in a shopping mall circus are awakened by dreams of real freedom.
The One And Only Ivan is quietly affecting, combining its message of freedom, whatever the risks, with unexpected nuance about human frailties. Unfortunately while it admirably dodges over-earnestness, as a viewing experience it errs on the dull side (and now I can’t stop singing Ivan The One And Only and pretending I’m Chesney Hawkes, which isn’t helping).
I would expect most animal-loving under-10s to love it and I suspect their rating would be a lot higher than mine; though in the interests of openness my own sons, aged 8 and 11, were resolutely uninterested in another tale of talking animals.
The catalysts for the animals’ reach for freedom are some crayons given to Silverback gorilla Ivan by Julia, whose dad George works in the circus; and the arrival of Ruby, a baby elephant. Telling the motherless Ruby bedtime stories awakens memories in Ivan; and when he is given the crayons, he starts to draw what he yearns for.
Initially Ivan (Sam Rockwell) produces what look to me like scribbles, though to Julia are clearly identifiable animals. Later she gives him some paints and “the primate Picasso” is born.
Ringmaster and circus owner Mack (Bryan Cranston) is so desperate to keep his faltering Big Top Circus going that he sees Ivan’s newfound artistic talent as, first and foremost, a way to promote his business. It’s the same thinking behind his promotion of baby Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to a new adoring (and paying) audience.
The seed of freedom, once planted in the animals’ minds, still has to struggle with stony ground. Ivan, the main attraction at Mack’s tiny and unprofitable attraction, cannot remember ever being free. His earliest memory is living with humans and being treated like one.
Now he’s bemused by his audience’s need for gorillas to be angry all the time; the gentle, wise African elephant Stella points out that “I think humans like us one way, and gorillas they see as angry”.
The other animals – Henrietta the chicken (Chaka Khan), Murphy the fire engine-driving rabbit (Ron Funches), Frankie the seal (Mike White), and Thelma the parrot (Phillipa Soo) – seem reasonably accepting, though many of them exhibit unknowing distress or loneliness (Frankie is as committed to his stripy ball as Chuck Noland was to Wilson in Cast Away). Only Stella (Angelina Jolie) remembers her wild early days.
Tellingly, the most content of all – thanks to thousands of years of domestication – are Snickers the poodle (Helen Mirren), who adores her pampered life, and Bob the scruffy stray (Danny DeVito), who constantly sneaks into the zoo to spend time with his friends.
The One And Only Ivan has important things to say about animal rights, and the cruelty of caging species that have never been domesticated. It’s nuanced in how it presents that message to its young audience, particularly around well-meaning humans who are nevertheless either responsible or complicit.
When I was sent the screener for this, it came with an instruction not to include spoilers or main plot points, so if you’ve come for that you will be disappointed. Still, many of you will know the original story, and, well, this is Disney so you can probably guess the proportion of tear-jerking scenes to uplifting ones, and their likely order.
It’s based on a book of the same name, which I had never heard of, by KA Applegate. The book in turn is based on real life events, and you’ll have to wait until the very end of the film to find out more about that. (“Can animals really talk,” was my first, baffled reaction on hearing the tale’s “true story” origins.)
Although the beats are obvious – protests over animals being kept in captivity, for example – The One And Only Ivan is strong on Mack’s ambiguity. He thinks he means well, though his frustration when training the animals frightens them. He also puts his business and his own well-being above theirs by keeping them in captivity in the first place, and by anthropomorphising them (something which of course the film does too).
There’s a good ongoing joke about the naming of Bob. Julia bestows Bobness on him, and everyone else soon follows, including the animals; Bob / Not-Bob himself is not pleased at being given such an arbitrary nomenclature and to be fair he’s right. He’s not a baby, and can at least tell the other animals what he wants to her called.
The animals are rendered in impressive CGI, particularly the huge Ivan. The voice cast are engaging though Snickers and Bob are scene-stealers whenever they appear. Reinforcing how small the animals’ world is, the human cast of characters is tiny: Mack (Cranston’s refusal to overact adds to the understated tenor of the film), assistant George (Ramón Rodriguez), his daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), and security guard Castello (Owain Arthur).
Both the animals’ growing awareness of their captivity, and the everyday tragedies of existence, are presented with calm sadness. In a movie about the exploitation of animals, director Thea Sharrock and writer Mike White (who also plays Frankie the seal) strive not to do the same themselves. Still, the plot lacks oomph and tends to meander (we hear about Julia’s sick mother but that storyline then vanishes).
There is much pithy comment about humans and our expectations of animals though it doesn’t paint us as purely the villains of the piece. Rather, it’s reminding children that animals are as complex and multifaceted as we are (Ivan himself, both tender-hearted and a natural protector, is also prone to the sulks when Ruby’s star quality is realised), and that freedom should be the cornerstone of everyone’s existence.
The Big Top Circus animals are prepared to take a chance on freedom even though getting there means taking a chance on humans being honest, committed and respectful. Are Ivan, Ruby and the rest going to be sent somewhere different? And if so will it be better? Or just somewhere else?
The One And Only Ivan is out on Disney+.
Watch the trailer now: