With Sam Rockwell voicing the title role of a 400-pound silverback gorilla and fellow Oscar winner Angelina Jolie joining the fun as an elephant named Stella, this CGI/live-action combo sounds like a raucous good time for kids of all ages. Right? Only it isn’t raucous…not really. Based on Katherine Applegate’s Newbery Medal-winning 2013 novel, with a script by Mike White (School of Rock) that muffles his usual gusto, The One and Only Ivan eases on down the road instead of tearing up the pavement. Under the gentle direction of Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) the talking-animal antics on display are maybe too pokey for their own good. Still, it’s hard to view restraint as a knock against the film version of a book that itself preferred a whisper to a shout. Quiet will not necessarily equal boredom for young audiences willing to forego noisy action for sweet empathy when Ivan debuts on Disney+ on August 21st.
Bryan Cranston, in the flesh, brings a soulful complexity to Mack, the hambone ringmaster and owner of the small-time Big Top Mall and Video Arcade where Ivan and his animal friends live in captivity. They’re just waiting to join the big tent to entertain the ever-diminishing number of customers. Along with Ivan and Stella, the animals include stray mutt Bob (Danny DeVito), strutting chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), and glam poodle Snickers (Dame Helen Mirren), who rides on Stella’s back and gets to rest in Mack’s comfy office. In Ivan’s words, being a gorilla is not so easy. He doesn’t understand why he has to roar and thump his chest to scare the customers. “I think humans like gorillas angry,” he says forlornly.
For human companionship, Ivan dotes on Julia (the appealing Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of George (Ramón Rodríguez), the tent custodian. It’s Julia who gives Ivan her crayons through which he uncovers an untapped talent for art. It’s a lovely sequence of discovery thanks to Rockwell’s textured reading. Jolie also finds a tenderness in Stella as the aging pachyderm notes, “Don’t you just love the moon with its untroubled smile.”
Trouble, however, is not to be denied when Mack introduces a new animal to the circus. She’s Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), a cute baby elephant brought in boost business. After learning tricks from Stella that the audience greets with oohs and aahs, Ruby is an immediate hit. But when Stella develops a dire illness, Mack forces shy Ruby into the arena alone. Even an actor as skilled as Cranston struggles to jibe this act of abuse with Mack’s inherent decency. It’s Ivan, seeing Mack mistreat Ruby for her cash potential, who determines to take Ruby someplace better, such as good zoos where Stella believed that humans “make amends” by giving animals the space to roam free.
These elements of trauma for Ruby briefly, and disturbingly jolt the movie into life. Ivan’s realization that he’s spent 9,855 days living in a cage hits him (and the audience) hard. Anthropomorphizing animals can be a trap, one that The One and Only Ivan doesn’t always avoid. Inspired by the true story of Ivan, a gorilla who lived in a similar situation for 27 years until he was adopted by Zoo Atlanta in 1994, the film is torn between a tough-minded plea for animal rights and edge-free, PG family entertainment. But its advocacy of kindness to man and animal is indisputable.