The latest example of Hollywood’s theatrical market beliefs and the discrimination they may have toward certain genres and the lack of moneymaking oomph has made for another shuffling to a direct-to-consumer platform. A miss-and-hit pattern is starting to form for Disney+ and their track record of films originally destined for theatrical release but ultimately sent to the home viewer knowing they would be tough to reschedule amid our present pandemic. Whereas the over-budgeted Artemis Fowl and the long-delayed Magic Camp have burned out and failed to click, The One and Only Ivan can safely join Hamilton as a purely enthusiastic bout of creativity. Regardless of inherent story flaws being adapted from another heartwarming novel with its own legion of fans.
Adapted from author Katherine Applegate’s best-seller, one inspired by an apparently true story with a local connection, Ivan embraces its small-town roots near-instantly. Just like a warm cup of cocoa for most youngsters with low stakes. Inside of the Big Top Mall, a shopping palace trapped in a bygone yesteryear (a big RIP to said cultural hallmarks), lies an under-the-radar circus barely scraping by with a core cast of eccentric animals. Not unlike the real Tacoma, WA mall that it was loosely based on. Hardly anyone shows, and the ringleader Mack (Bryan Cranston) is struggling to pay the bills. And yet, his resilience proves no barrier. Sporting a red suit and a hokey English accent, you would have no idea he was barely hanging on. His menagerie helps to lift his spirits, the titular gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) the unofficial captain of the guard.
It’s not a cuddly animal tale, however, without the lead character’s unique desire to long for something greater than performing for a captive audience, no matter how small. Ivan’s feeling oddly reminiscent of his past, one spent in the wild before being Mack’s loyal pet. Such mild thought processes only manifest deeper with the arrival of new baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), to make a tag team with pachyderm elder Stella (Angelina Jolie). However, things take a natural turn when Stella falls ill and pushes Ivan and his comrades to give Ruby and the cast a better life away from the cages, preferably into the jungle. Easier said than acted upon; and it’s certainly not without hesitation as the gorilla struggles to realize just what that means, exposing the film’s deeper meaning.
If you were to ask me, The One and Only Ivan feels like a genuinely welcome breath of fresh air, as far as both summer family fare and what we’ve seen with the non-franchise corner of the Mouse House’s live-action production output. Nothing too complex for the littluns, plenty of harmless humor for the grownups. And just enough of a real-world conservation drama aspect toward the in-betweens. If they’re already excited about that sort of thing by now. It’s charming, witty, wholesome. Something I wish last year’s big-budget remake of Dumbo could have tried to pull off much more effortlessly. At the same time, it struggles to leave too much of an emotional impact, stopping itself just too short.
Writer/voice of a skittish seal Mike White (Brad’s Status) should be proud of crafting the comfort food Ivan settles into. I would be if the brakes weren’t slammed just as Ivan’s sense of character was finally evolving. The last 20 minutes feel so different from everything else, the separation rather jarring. Leave it to sophomore feature director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You), with cinematographer Florian Ballhaus (I Feel Pretty) riding shotgun, to keep the range of motion moving on a balanced course, all captured beautifully.
Her actors never completely phoning in their roles, unlike other similar family films. Their performances appear genuine behind the CG, Rockwell the true star of the show with a natural coolness. Danny DeVito redeems himself greatly as loyal mutt Bob, Ivan’s bestie, and moral compass. Perhaps also the considerable secret weapon of accidental humor. Helen Mirren aligns with her usual tropes in the form of a prim poodle. Ron Funches is least in his wheelhouse, bringing his vocal chops to a small bunny rabbit. Jolie and Prince represent finite strength with their adopted mother-daughter dynamic. Philippa Soo and Chaka Khan complete the picture with rather lyrical portrayals of the bird-like variety.
For the human characters, they’re not so lucky to show such versatility. Ariana Greenblatt has a few decent quirks portraying the daughter of a loyal zoo employee who sees Ivan’s artistic potential. His drawings eventually become a unique point in his story, as she and father George (Ramon Rodriguez) witness. Unfortunately, Mack is not a great antagonist, if that was the intention. If he’s figured to be a monster for keeping animals in captivity, then his eye for talented abilities should make him a monster with a conscience. Cranston’s still enjoyable to watch, proving a fun ringleader. And yet it’s clear he’s the greatest victim of the script trying not to be too menacing for the kids. Somewhat of an afterthought after his circus cast, sadly.
Despite the missteps White could’ve easily avoided in his adaptation, what he manages to get right is enough to maintain a decent balance as one of those midday matinees for everyone in the living room. I found The One and Only Ivan an enjoyable little spot of time doing its thematic job effectively, though messily. A mostly strong cast coupled with simplistic visuals that could best the big-budget showiness of Lion King any day. A whimsical Craig Armstrong score, and the random presence of a new Diane Warren/Charlie Puth tune worthy of a seat in the Oscar conversation. And a title character who’s rather easy to relate to, aspiring to be more than what he’s known to be. I suppose if one’s expectations stay moderate, it’s worth a revisit. (B; 3.5/5 Horns Up)
The One and Only Ivan is currently streaming on Disney+; rated PG for mild thematic elements; 95 minutes.