The One and Only Ivan is a beautiful story about Ivan, a 400-pound silverback gorilla, who lives and performs in circus operated in a Big Top Mall. Surrounded by other animals he lives and works with, Ivan is dealing with no longer being the talk of the circus. Then one day he’s introduced to Ruby, a baby elephant used to bring in a now depleted audience. This simple act results in Ivan unlocking lost memories and longing for life outside the circus and his cage.
At a recent virtual press conference, actors Sam Rockwell (voice of Ivan,) Angelina Jolie (voice of Stella,) Danny DeVito (voice of Bob the dog,) Helen Mirren (voice of Snickers the poodle,) Brooklynn Prince (voice of Ruby,) Ramon Rodriguez (mall employee George,) Ariana Greenblatt (George’s daughter Julia,) Chaka Khan (voice of Henrietta the chicken,) Mike White (screenwriter and voice of Frankie the seal,) Ron Funches (voice of Murphy the rabbit,) Phillipa Soo (voice of Thelma the parrot,) and Bryan Cranston (Mack, the circus attraction’s owner) joined director Thea Sharrock to discuss their characters, the movie, and the connection between humans and the animal kingdom.
The One and Only Ivan is a movie built on advanced technology that mixes human performances with CGI. However, technology never stands in the way of the actor’s performances, instead it helps to enrich the story. Through these advances, the animals’ features feel real. The hairs and feathers have movement and texture, Ivan’s eyes are always deep in thought. There’s a gentleness to Stella, Jolie captures effortlessly.
“In terms of shooting, this movie was very much like simultaneously working on two movies at the same time, because of the technical aspect of it. So…we started the whole process with the voice actors because the animators needed their voices to begin to be laid down for the animation journey to begin…Then we shot all of our live-action stuff,” said Sharrock.
“Then we went back in and we shot the virtual aspects of the film, which was whenever we had just animals in a scene together. Those scenes we often re-revisited — we went back in and we did them several times just to get tiny, tiny nuances. Changes in the actor’s voices, changes in their performances made a huge change to the animators, and what they were doing. So, in that sense the technicality of it was certainly unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” Sharrock continued.
While this movie is about animals living in captivity, the weight it can have on that animal and the quality of life they deserve; The One and Only Ivan never judges a character and never preaches to the audience. Instead, it presents the story in its most honest form and reminds us that we’re all connected.
Rodriguez reminds us that since COVID-19 we can relate to being trapped inside and the movie’s deeper message of never giving up hope no matter which stage in life you find yourself.
“I feel like–we’ve all been sort of indoors, and I think it’s allowed for a lot of introspection…which is, I think, really similar to what Ivan goes through in this-in this beautiful sort of, coming-of-age experience…And I love the message that you get to find yourself even later in life. You know, we’re continually on this journey; and here we are in this very interesting time where you get to sort of be home and…looking within, whether it’s with yourself, the country…it’s just a really interesting time. And I think these moments actually allow us to hopefully come out of it, maybe a bit more evolved. I think for Ivan that’s exactly his experience, so I think that’s a pretty powerful message in particular where we are right now.”
While it’s easy for the audience to judge Mack, the owner, and ringleader of the circus, writer Mike White has created a fully dimensional man who is not perfect but doesn’t mean any malice. Mack raised Ivan since he was a baby gorilla. We watch as his marriage falls apart, and we see the love and compassion he has for his animals. But there is still a side where we see the depression of no longer running a profitable circus. We question his actions but he is never cast as the villain.
Cranston reflected on this and how he saw his character. “I too saw him as a man who has flaws but also is attempting to make things right. Ivan was like a child to him, and…he wasn’t about to abandon his child. So, he wanted to figure out, how do I embrace the fact that he’s now a full-fledged silverback gorilla and how do I live with that? And so, it was [necessary] to discover those nuances and allow for the character to be vulnerable.”
“So, we talked about it, and I pitched the idea that Mack wears a wig and that at one point the wig flies up and he’s bald and it embarrasses him. And I also had a stomach pad…and, a girdle. And so, those were personal vulnerabilities that he didn’t want people to see. So, he was presenting himself as someone he wanted to project. But it wasn’t really him.”
“And at the end then it came full circle. At the end, we embrace and he embraces who he truly is and allows himself to show who he really is at the end. No more wig–allowing himself to be who he is–and he’s happy and proud to see that Ivan has moved into the next chapter in his life.”
Stella the wise old elephant, voiced by Angelina Jolie, elevates screenwriter’s Mike White’s ethereal thoughtful tones and the script’s poetic dialogue. Not only is she the guiding light of the group and Ruby’s surrogate mother but she is also the producer of the movie. She signed on because of children and the book’s deep message she wanted to bring to a larger audience.
“One of my children read the book and said that they loved it. And I read it, and we kind of talked about why it was special and why it meant so much to them.”
“And so, I started to pursue. Where is it? Is it being made? What’s happening? Even in the early drafts, it was very interesting. One of the things Mike did, that I think was very special, is–I had seen it start to go down a road where it really started to become a light, fun, kid’s car-like action…a simpler story. It was easy for somebody to come in and just try to pick a few threads and make it quite simple and add some action here and-and to really make it [not] what it is intended to be. And Disney and Mike and everybody involved really understood that…It’s hard. It’s not a light film. It deals with heavy issues. But it is charming and fun and full of life, but it’s deceptive in the packaging.”
“So, I thought very, very important, and wanted to get involved. I like the messages in it, and I’m excited that this young generation, as well as…I think all of us older people will appreciate it for many reasons. But I know this young generation is really very aware of what is happening in the world to our natural habitats, to these animals, what’s happening in the Congo and losing ground, what’s happening with the gorillas, the elephants. And they’re angry. And they want to really be clear about what kind of treatment is appropriate, what kind of captivity is appropriate, again being against poaching, being [for] preservation of natural habitats. So, I think this will, you know, this represents them.”
“And I think that’s strong for them today, to see that their actions can make a change.”
The One and Only Ivan is available on Disney Plus.