A problem with today’s family-oriented films is that they feel they must dumb everything down so the kids will sit quiet for an hour and a half and enjoy the movie. Many modern kid’s films refuse to put much substance into their characters and think their young audiences will be happy with messy slapstick and flatulent humor. It is this way of thinking that leads to so many family films insulting their intended audience of the children and the parents who take them.
When I sat down with my family to watch the new Disney-produced release, “The One and Only Ivan,” it can be forgiven that I was less than enthused. Based on the true tale of a silverback gorilla who spent twenty-seven years in a performing circus inside a mall until he was eventually moved to a sanctuary to live out his days in the wild, all alarms alerted me that this would not be a good film. They chose to tell the tale from the animals’ perspective which meant casting human actors to voice each one. Great, another talking animal movie.
I am more than happy to admit I was wrong. “The One and Only Ivan” was a big surprise. Yes, it is a bit corny and predictable but screenwriter Mike White (adapting the Newberry Medal-winning book by Katherine Applegate) and director Thea Sharrock do justice to Ivan’s story by focusing on the emotions of the animals in a realistic manner. These animals have souls, something we tend to forget as we go to our favorite zoos to gaze at the captive creatures.
While it is true that White’s screenplay sweetens the story to make it more accessible for younger audiences, that does not mean that this is a film without heart. In the instance of “The One and Only Ivan,” keeping the story simple and youthfully attainable was the correct way to go.
Bryan Cranston is unyielding as Mack, the owner of a fledgling circus that is housed inside the aforementionned mall. For years he has wowed audiences with his animal attractions; a bunny that rides a fire truck, a chicken that plays baseball, a dog that is fancier than a princess, a nervous performing seal, a big and beautiful elephant, and his star attraction, the ferocious silverback known as Ivan.
Sam Rockwell voices Ivan and does not go for cutesy portrayal. The actor finds an unexpected kindness to his character. Ivan has personality, he also has memories of his youth and a dream of his future. In narration Ivan lets us know that he is far from a ferocious beast. It’s all stage acting, and Ivan loves to put on a big show for his audience.
The loveable silverback lives and performs with his pals. Sylvia the elephant (a wise Angelina Jolie) is an old soul who is the guiding voice of the group. The other animals are a bit wasted. They are played by Helen Mirren (the poodle), Ron Fuches (the rabbit), Chaka Khan (the chicken), and Mike White as the seal. With such talent, they should have been given a lot more to do.
Ivan’s true friend is a stray dog (Danny Devito) who has made his home in Ivan’s cage. They are the best of friends and the film allows Devito and Rockwell to share some tender moments together. White’s screenplay doesn’t treat them as silly animals who exist just to be cute. Their scenes have a believable truth to them and would play just as well if they were not CGI-designed animals.
The visual effects are quite credible. The large team of FX artists came together to make us believe that these animals could speak, pulling it off flawlessly. It is award-worthy work from this talented crew. It all looks and feels genuine.
As Mack’s circus begins to lose money, he decides to add a new attraction. He brings in a baby elephant named Ruby to attract more kids. At first, Ruby is a threat to Ivan as he sees his star fading and she becomes the star of the show. But he learns to love the little elephant. After an unexpected death, he begins to look after her.
Once Ivan is given a set of paints by the daughter of one of the zoo workers, he begins to paint pictures. At first, they are mere scratches but they (and his talent) bloom. He begins to create picturesque panoramas of beautiful green lands, where he longs to be. This starts a movement to free Ivan into the environment where he belongs.
Director Sharrock knows her way around voice casting. She picked the perfect actors for these roles. While the side animals don’t get much time to shine, Rockwell, Jolie, and especially Devito are allowed some memorable instants together. Their conversations are always interesting, their dialogue never cloying.
If I were a screenwriter, I would not have taken on this assignment. The task of adapting a children’s book that was a true story and making it relatable to kid audiences while addressing the issue of the sadness of animals in captivity must have been a massive undertaking. My hat is off to Mike White for succeeding where most films of this nature fail. His screenplay gets to the heart of the tale while finding the meaning of true friendship while commenting on the treatment of captive animals. White has accomplished all of this with a gentle touch and the film succeeds greatly thanks to his screenplay.
The care that went in to making this film something special shows. Tarrock’s tender direction helps the audience to believe in its magic. There actually was a silverback gorilla who learned to express himself through art. He really lived for twenty-seven years in a mall circus and was saved by a movement. He really did live out the rest of his life in an animal sanctuary. And maybe, just maybe, when the lights had dimmed and all the humans had gone, Ivan could speak with the other animals. Just maybe … I believe.