Disney is taking us back to the circus in The One and Only Ivan, but this time we’re not following the story of a flying elephant. The film is based on an award-winning children’s book of the same name, which in turn was inspired by a real life Gorilla called Ivan. It tells the story of Ivan, a massive silverback gorilla, who lives in a mall and performs as a circus headliner.
Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) draws the crowds by beating his chest and becoming the terrifying but fascinating spectacle of the “angry gorilla”. He doesn’t understand why humans like gorillas angry, and says it can be difficult to roar when he doesn’t feel like it. He expresses his sadness about it to his friend – an ageing elephant called Stella (voiced by soft spoken-Angelina Jolie) – who tells him “I think humans like us one way. And gorillas they see as angry”.
Ivan and Stella are joined in the circus by an adorable host of characters – and a star-studded cast. There’s a neurotic sea lion called Frankie (Mike White), Henrietta the sassy chicken (Chaka Khan), a classy poodle by the name of Snickers (Helen Mirren), and Ivan’s scruffy but loveable mascot– a stray dog, Bob, who sneaks in to the mall to steal kibble and sleep on Ivan’s girthy belly (voiced by Danny DeVito). The animals are given unique and endearing personalities, and the script is quirky and fun. They seem to enjoy their job performing for humans until, one day, an event triggers their longing for freedom.
I’m going to be honest, I enjoyed this movie. The jokes were cute, and I think it would make great family viewing. It’s easy to see how kids and parents alike would be enchanted by the film’s characters. Not to mention, The film’s human protagonist and owner of the Big Top mall in which the animals live, Mack is played by Bryan Cranston. Cranston, of Breaking Bad, already has a reputation for being a phenomenal actor. He proves it all over again by being the only human in many of the film’s scenes, and still managing to deliver a brilliant, multi-dimensional performance while acting alongside co-stars who don’t even exist.
The One and Only Ivan really is a heartwarming story. So, heartwarming in fact, that it starts to feel problematic (although the children the film is targeted at probably wouldn’t worry about this). The film does a great job of anthropomorphising its animal protagonists, but only very briefly does it touch on the realities of the cruelty they would experience as circus animals. The narrative takes a brief turn towards an animal rights message at the end (in a way that seems far too quiet in my opinion), but for the most part, it seems to depict captive performance animals as being quite comfortable in cages alongside their other animal friends. Never does it mention that perhaps the reason Frankie the seal is so nervous and neurotic is because of the stresses of its living environment, or that female elephants are highly social animals who don’t do well in small concrete enclosures.
“Humans are the worst. Cockroaches have bigger hearts.” – Bob
For a narrative that promotes typical Disney lessons of dealing with loss, coping with change, and compassion for animals its teachings fall a little short. The film speaks of bringing freedom to the circus animals, but – as was the case in the story of the real life Ivan – has the animals ending up in a zoo anyway. Significant improvement, but still a saddening reminder that most animals cannot live free in a world dominated by human beings.
So, all in all The One and Only Ivan makes for a cute PG family experience, but leaves one with the nagging feeling that some of the realities of the situation have been glossed over in order to make it that way. Five stars for the cast, production, acting, and dialogue, but only two for the delicate and cliched handling of subject matter that could have been expanded.
Essential Millennial Rating: 3 out of 5 avocados
The One and Only Ivan is streaming now on Disney+.
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