[Review] ‘THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN’ – Gorillas in the misty-eyes

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN

Rated PG, 93 minutes

Directed by: Thea Sharrock

Starring: Sam RockwellBryan CranstonAngelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Brooklynn Prince, Ariana Greenblatt, Ramon Rodriguez, Chaka Khan, Helen Mirren, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo

Movies featuring a cadre of talking CGI animals might be a hard sell these days (see, or rather don’t, DOLITTLE as the latest example). However, that shouldn’t serve to dissuade anyone from watching and feeling the gutting impact of director Thea Sharrock’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Based on a true story and adapted from Katherine Applegate’s best-selling novel, this irrepressibly sweet, heartrending and charming picture about a show-stopping silverback gorilla keeps emotions grounded and authentic even though it centers on a synthetic simian hero.

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is the headliner of a local circus act performing daily in the unassuming Big Top Mall, located off a freeway in Tacoma, Washington. He’s been there for decades, entertaining crowds with his booming, ferocious roar and chest thumping prowess. He’s actually not fierce, but that’s the shtick circus owner and ringleader Mack (Bryan Cranston) envisioned for the show. Ivan’s actually very friendly, having found a makeshift family with the folk and fauna of the circus. Those include kind caretaker George (Ramon Rodriguez) and his young, precocious daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), as well as neurotic Frankie the seal (voiced by writer Mike White), ridiculously cute rabbit Murphy (voiced by Ron Funches), limelight-loving poodle Snickers (voiced by Helen Mirren), dutiful chicken Henrietta (voiced by Chaka Khan), perfect parrot Thelma (Phillipa Soo), street-smart stray Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito) and wise, sweet-hearted Stella the elephant (voiced by Angelina Jolie).

While they’ve all found safety and sanctuary in the status quo, the supportive audience has begun to dwindle. To revive the circus’ sagging profits and spirits, Mack hopes to pack people in the stands again with the introduction of a new, baby pachyderm, Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince). She’s wide-eyed, innocent and loves a detailed, colorful story. She also steals the spotlight from Ivan. As he attempts to keep his jealousy at bay, Stella bonds with Ruby, showing her the ropes. But living in captivity has worn on Stella, who wants better for her protégé. Ruby’s addition inspires change, forcing Ivan to confront repressed memories of his past while promising Stella a better future.

Ivan and his friends hatch an escape in THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN. Courtesy of DisneyPlus.

Tear-shed seems almost inevitable with this feature’s universally resonant, insightful sentiments about attaining freedom when so much keeps us captive (which radiates far beyond our current quarantine), and tender teachings on doing the right thing. Even the reminder that humanity isn’t lost (“Not all humans are bad”) feels deeply reassuring in dark times. None of these life lessons come across as trite or remedial in these filmmakers’ hands. These types of broader, existential concepts are easily digestible. It’s also not all serious. Levity is infused to varying degrees of success: the best being the timeless chicken crossing the road joke when the gang attempt an escape, which earns more than a chuckle of acknowledgement, and the worst being the slapstick, buffoonish toupee gag they hoist on Mack.

Though development can be a bit slight, most of these characters struggle with relatable psychological or physical burdens. Ivan is dealing with residual trauma and guilt from his youth, but instead of letting it drag him down, he does something proactive, channeling his sadness and frustration into helpful selflessness. Julia struggles with grief over her ailing mother’s illness, combatting her sorrow with therapeutic techniques. Mack’s big dreams have caused major losses in his life – primarily a wife who abandoned him and Ivan years prior, and secondarily clinging to a dream whose time is up. He’s neither a villain nor a hero – only a conflicted man trying to resign his reveries to reality (which Cranston strikes a careful balance playing). Supporting characters are also sorting through some obstacles, like Frankie with his acute anxiety, or Bob with his nomad lifestyle.

Rockwell, Jolie and Prince are standouts in the ensemble, giving voice to the narrative’s subtle undertones and delicate intonations. Their thoughtful work weaving gravitas and pathos into the – at times – heavy subject matter with warmth and nuance augments the material’s profundity. They make you forget we’re watching CGI creatures. The visual effects team has done a tremendous job working in concert with the material and the performances, delivering expressive and emotive anamorphic beings. Providing the sonic backdrop for all to play, composer Craig Armstrong’s score errs on the syrupy side, but finds the right notes when pressed upon to highlight pivotal, character-driven moments.

Grade: 4 out of 5

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN premieres exclusively on Disney+ August 21.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.