Imagine a world where you are at the top of your game. A world where thousands of people from across the United States come to see you. You are strong and powerful and people marvel at you with great amazement and curiosity. But as time continues, that curiosity begins to lessen. The crowds thin, the applause lowers and you’re left longing for the past. While things look bleak, hope comes to you in the form of a baby elephant. The sight of new life inspires you and despite your age, you feel like you have something new to live for and a secret to unlock that could be the very thing needed to return to a life you’ve long forgotten.
This is Disney’s The One and Only Ivan.
Based on a captivating true story from Katherine Applegate’s 2012 Newbery Medal-winning novel (of the same name), it tells the tale of a silverback gorilla, Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), who lives his life in a partially glassed-in cage at the Big Top Mall and Video Arcade off Exit 8.
As the star attraction in a shopping-mall circus, he lives and works with a variety of animals who all make a circus. We see how Ivan prepares his day as the show’s King Kong-like main attraction, complete with beating his chest and giving a mighty roar. It’s all an act but enough to scare the kids and delight the adults in the audience. But the last twenty years has seen people become less entertained by him. While he considers himself a great actor for the show, his passion is actually drawing. A talent he denied himself for years due to a tragic childhood event.
The One and Only Ivan seamlessly blends live-action with CGI animals. Each digital creature feels alive, and the sight is exquisite. Fur and features move with ease, shadows come to life and you can feel the soul in their eyes. Ivan is thoughtful and expressive. His emotions are on full display and you can see the weight of his carried memories. There is an emotional connection to each animal.
The movie is also filled with love and compassion ripped from the pages of Disney’s best qualities. The ragtag team of animals and humans all come with distinct personalities and interactions. Ivan’s messy-mutt best friend, Bob, voiced by Danny DeVito, Henrietta the baseball-playing chicken (voiced by Chaka Khan), Snickers the confident poodle (voiced by Helen Mirren), and Stella the wise old elephant, voiced by Angelina Jolie, elevates screenwriter’s Mike White’s ethereal thoughtful tones and the script’s poetic dialogue.
“Don’t you just love the moon, with its untroubled smile?”
Then there’s the circus’ owner and ringleader, Mack (played Bryan Cranston), who is delightful, caring, slightly corny and full of dimension. More than just a circus owner, he raised Ivan from a young gorilla in his own home, suffered through the complications of his marriage falling apart because of his choices with Ivan, and had his heartbroken when Ivan could no longer fit into his tiny abode. No one ever plans for when a gorilla is no longer cute, cuddly, and tiny.
As the circus struggles to bring in an audience, there’s a new and adorable arrival. Ruby the baby elephant, will capture your heart and will make you forget Ruby is creative by a series of 0s and 1s. With the bat of her eyes, she is a callback to Dumbo; and she’s just as curious. Voiced by young actress Brooklynn Prince, the moment she meets Stella, we know we’re going to witness an unbreakable bond. But keeping up with the Disney tradition, tragedy strikes and Ivan finds himself stepping up in a new role.
Filled with heart and while there are some all-too-familiar Disney troupes, The One and Only Ivan uses these techniques to elevate the movie and educate us about the life of captivity, longing for more and following your passion.
This is more than a movie about a gorilla who dreams of freedom. It’s about inspiring others and keeping your promise.
Just like Ruby can bring out the best in someone, this movie makes us reach into our soul to bring out the best in ourselves, the best in our talents, and the best in life.
Ivan is a complicated beast, a withering old circus performer who hasn’t seen the outside for 27 years given a new chance in life, a baby gorilla experiencing life for the first time and a group of animals longing for something more. While it is easy to judge human actions, it showcases the gentle side of humanity and how we’re all connected.
The One and Only Ivan is a tender love story to all creatures. It doesn’t judge yet but educates no matter the age of the audience. Mike White has crafted a script that is worthy of a classic Disney film.