The One and Only Ivan has an impressive cast of Academy Award winners and nominees including Sam Rockwell, Helen Mirren, Angelina Jolie, Bryan Cranston, and more. Such a lineup makes it hard not to have high expectations. Unfortunately, the majority of them act like a bunch of animals. Literally. Let me clarify, Ivan is yet another addition to a growing list of talking animal films.
Adapted for the screen by Mike White (School of Rock) from author Katherine Applegate‘s children’s book of the same name, the film tells the based on a true story of Ivan (Rockwell) a silverback gorilla who lives and performs in a show at circus inside a Tacoma, Washington shopping mall. His is the circus’ show-stopping headliner who closes each show with enough roaring and chest-pounding to shock and amaze the kids in the audience.
Performing alongside Ivan is an array of animals including the motherly African elephant named Stella (Jolie), Snickers the posh poodle (Mirren), a baseball-playing chicken named Henrietta (Chaka Khan), and a chatty parrot named Thelma (Phillipa Soo – who was breathtaking in Hamilton is utterly wasted here). The circus ringleader and founder, Mack (Cranston), raised orphaned Ivan like his child, eventually bringing him to the circus which has fallen into financial hardship. This leaves Mack searching for ways to save his business.
There is an element of genuine sweetness at the heart of the story, a gorilla who uses art to express himself while living in a less than ideal shopping mall setting. The premise has all the components needed for a heartwarming tale that will entertain both children and adults. Sadly, that aspect of the story is lost in a jumbled mix of sophomoric humor, unnecessary subplots, some unrestrained CGI and an overall lack of edge squanders the film’s potential.
All hopes for a heart-tugging film never came to fruition but not for director Thea Sharrock‘s lack of trying. There are plenty attempts to play on your emotions but none of them feel earned. Sharrock is more focused on spinning numerous plates with thread about an artistic gorilla, an great escape, a slapstick comedy, a man’s attempt to save his business and even a few more. The lack of finesse as we hop from one to the next and some odd tonal shifts leave most the plates crashing to the ground.
At face value, the film is harmless enough, but as the bigger moments occur and we’re left with apathy rather than sentiment, it is obvious something is amiss. The biggest issue is connected to some foggy character development and confused messaging most prevalently found in the tug of war over our feelings toward Cranston’s Mack, the animals’ keeper. Cranston does decent work with the character, but the script does him little service.
At first, he is amiable with some goofy uncle charm, hamming it up, doing whatever it takes to keep his dying circus afloat. He seems to love and truly care for the animals. Things shift and Mack is surprisingly cast in a more negative light as a somewhat selfish, cruel, and desperate man who keeps animals captive when they would be better off in wild. But, since this is a kids film they pull that punch, avoiding making Mack the antagonist that the film so sorely needs to deliver an engaging conflict. The indecisiveness of Sharrock ultimately has rippling effects that undermine what should be the biggest moments.
Adding to my indifference is the overuse of CGI throughout. Don’t get me wrong, the technical and artistic efforts that bring this menagerie of animals to life in a seamless merging of live-action and photorealistic animation is undeniably astounding. Every animal is meticulously modeled right on down to the hair (or feather). It is quite amazing how far the technology and artistry have progressed.
Where the problem lies in the overabundance of human characteristics that injected into these animals. They look like but rarely behave or feel like normal animals. Once they begin talking (and never seem to stop) they are stripped of their animal identities. Their inherent cuteness is replaced with some of the obnoxious attributes of people. Dog farts, lame jokes, pop culture references, and plenty of puns – they are all here. The talking animal parlor trick is used to deliver weak jokes rather than the substance needed for the deeper themes to resonate. Even Ivan’s artistic abilities seem like an afterthought.
As Ivan, Rockwell delivers the most charismatic and thoughtful of the film’s characters. The rest of the animal cast do not fare as well. Jolie is barely recognizable and Mirren’s poodle is a four-legged cliche. For an adventure that takes place in a zoo full of colorful creatures, it is surprisingly short on humor or memorable moments. Danny DeVito, as Ivan’s stray dog sidekick Bob, shares much of the screen time with the gorilla. He serves as main comic relief, but unless you are under the age of ten, the jokes probably won’t land with much impact. It is no surprise that the biggest laugh comes from a moment when Ivan actually acts like… wait for it… a gorilla. Maybe a break from all the talking would have served the film better.
While kids will probably enjoy some of the antics only made possible through the animation, for the most part, the millions of dollars spent on computer graphics and celebrity voice talent do not amount to much. The animal ethics messaging may have been better served by going old school, using real animals with a talented voice-over artist, or even sticking to a more traditional animation style.
Just before the credits roll an epilogue shows photos of the actual Ivan. It is a moment that lands with more poignancy than the preceding 90 minutes combined. Something tells me that the true story of Ivan the artistic gorilla that lived in a mall is a much more endearing story than the uninspired and predictable version that made it to the screen. While all the emotional beats are there, they feel as hollow and artificial as the animals delivering them.
The One and Only Ivan is streaming exclusively on Disney +.
Some character missteps and an over-reliance on animation tames the film’s laughs and keeps its heart held captive.