It is almost too coincidental that a film about animals breaking free from their captivity would be released during a pandemic. The feeling of isolation of living in a confined space mirrors that of our current lifestyle. Although some areas have eased up on quarantine rules, there are still those who are still understandably afraid to go out to places like a movie theater, which is why Thea Sharrock’s The One And Only Ivan will resonate with its audience.
The One And Only Ivan plays to Disney’s strengths of delivering a rosy film that deals with a dense subject matter. Of course, kids will be captivated by talking animals taking center stage of the plot in this family film. They will laugh at the silly animal antics, whether on the circus stage or behind the scenes. But what is surprising is how the film will spark a conversation about the cruel psychological harms of animal captivity.
In The One And Only Ivan, the titular silverback gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is the star attraction of Mack’s (Byran Cranston) Big Top Mall – which is what it sounds like, a circus located at the heart of a strip mall. He may be there to scare the young children, but he is really a big softie. While Ivan, along with a motherly elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), a wise-cracking stray dog Bob (Danny DeVito), a well-groomed poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), a circus barking parrot Thelma (Phillipa Soo), a homerun swinging chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), neurotic seal Frankie (Mike White) and a fire truck riding rabbit Murphy (Ron Funches), enjoy performing in front of an audience, they are oblivious to the circus’s shrinking audience attendance and financial struggles.
Mack hopes things will change when he adds baby elephant Ruby (Brooklyn Prince) to the circus troupe. But it doesn’t get any better. And when an unexpected tragedy hits, Ivan vows to take care of Ruby and find her a better place to live. This promise sparks memories of when he was free. But after Mack being abusive to Ruby during a training session, he decides that it is time to break free from their captivity.
To say that The One And Only Ivan is a strictly a kids film would be an oversimplification. The film contains dense themes about the ethical treatment of animals, their captivity, and how one handles grief. Though Sharrock’s approach to the subject matter is soft, she addresses it with a gentle bedtime storybook sensibility.
Rockwell’s rough but soft voice works well for a character like Ivan, whose intimidating physique contrasts his warm and gentle personality. DeVito’s voicework as Bob provides a lot of street-wise humor to the film. And it is fun to see Cranston play a character who isn’t a stright=up villain but isn’t quite the hero. There are moments in the film where he genuinely cares for the animals. A flashback reveals that he was the one to save Ivan from poachers. And we see that he treats Ivan as if he were a son. But at some point, he lost sight of that relationship. So it’s challenging to get a read on a character that we can sympathize with but is also a character that we can despise.
Watching Ivan grow as a character discover his talents as an artist can be an inspiration to some. Not for the simple act of drawing, but that he is using his art to communicate. Of course, Mack’s decision to exploit Ivan’s artistic talents is despicable, but it helps Ivan remember the importance of keeping a vow to a loved one. It’s in those moments when the film is colored with a wide range of emotions that few of the characters can understand.
The cast brings a kind of warm energy to The One and Only Ivan that gives the film a bedtime story vibe that will surely connect with the younger audience. Although it does take some time for the film to get to that point, its message is never lost.
The One and Only Ivan premieres exclusively on Disney Plus on August 21.