Originally scheduled for a cinematic release, but now arriving on Disney+ instead, The One and Only Ivan is the latest in a long line of stories involving CGI animals who can talk, banding together to outsmart us humans in order to escape captivity. Only this one is actually based on a true story.
There were no talking animals in the real version of events this is based on, but there was a silverback gorilla named Ivan,
stolen as an infant from the rainforests of Congo and made to live in a tiny cage, while regularly putting on a show for visitors to a shopping centre for 27 years in total. This being a Disney movie though, the cruelty of that is glossed over somewhat, with funny animal friends with wacky voices aiming to brighten things up. Although, the message that his captivity was wrong is certainly there for all to see, and hopefully to be appreciated.
Bryan Cranston is Mack, the showman responsible for raising Ivan and making him a star, bristling when enthusiasm and “the show must go on” spirit, despite dwindling audiences and occasional animal illness. From flashbacks, it’s clear that Mack loves Ivan, his passion for raising him having cost him his marriage. But now that Ivan is the star of the show at the mini circus in the mall, complacency has set in, and Mack cannot see that all Ivan now truly wants is his freedom.
In an attempt to try and bring in the crowds, Mack brings in a baby elephant, which takes over top billing status from Ivan, much to his disappointment. Elderly elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie) takes the new baby under her wing, and during some late night storytelling sessions between the animals, we learn that Ivan had a sister back in the jungle, and was actually a budding artist, using mud to paint on rocks. When Julia, young daughter of one of the helping hands at the circus, gives Ivan some of her old crayons and finger paints, Ivan begins drawing again, and is soon moved back up to top billing in the show.
When I first saw the trailer for The One and Only Ivan, I was totally on board. That is, until the animals started talking. I thought the CGI remake of The Lion King last year was just terrible, and the Lady and the Tramp remake which landed on Disney+ earlier this year was even worse. Realistic looking animals simply cannot convey emotions like their traditionally animated counterparts, while retaining their realistic looks. But The One and Only Ivan thankfully feels so different, much better than those movies do. And a lot of that is down to the voice cast.
Sam Rockwell is Ivan. Perfectly cast, he brings a real much needed gravitas to the sombre silverback. Along with the stray dog (Danny DeVito) that visits Ivan’s cage and sleeps on his belly at night, they form a delightful double act, discussing freedom, and the fortunes of the circus. With a lot of time being spent with the animals in their cages, the movie does drag a little at times, but then maybe that’s the whole idea – portraying the solitude and boredom experienced when you do not have your freedom.
As if it wasn’t already clear enough, The One and Only Ivan nicely drives home the important message that animals really shouldn’t be kept in pokey cages for long periods of time, and certainly not for decades either. The end of the movie reminds us that Ivan’s story is actually based on truth, as we’re shown photos of the real Ivan, who stayed with a family before becoming a circus act. Seeing the photos of his eventual release to the vastly improved setting of Atlanta zoo, where he lived out the rest of his days, certainly proves to be very emotional, and a fitting end to a surprisingly enjoyable family movie.