Sometime around 1964, an infant silverback gorilla was rescued from poachers, was brought to the U.S., and lived with a family in their home until he grew too large. At that point, the silverback, called Ivan, became the headlining act at a circus held inside a Tacoma, Washington, mall. For 27 years, Ivan would not see the outside world, until news of a seemingly strange talent caught the attention of the public and an outcry grew to the point where he was sent to live at Zoo Atlanta. There, Ivan would live out the rest of his days in relative peace. This true story serves as the basis for Katherine Applegate’s award-winning book The One and Only Ivan, which adjusts the events to craft a fictional story of companionship, love, and freedom involving not just Ivan, but a plethora of circus animals who’ve never left the indoor circus grounds. Adapted by Mike White (Beatriz at Dinner) and directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You), Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan blends CGI creatures with live action elements to bring Applegate’s novel to life and share Ivan’s story with an even greater audience.
Silverback gorilla Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) has been the headlining attraction for Mack’s (Bryan Cranston) circus for years, drawing in crowds of all sizes to see him jump, bash his chest, and roar. Lately, though, audiences aren’t coming in like they used to, making Ivan and the rest of the animals in the show a little nervous. In an effort to spice things up, Mack brings in a young elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince) as a novelty to his existing act with elder stateswoman Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie). In order to comfort herself, nervous in her new surroundings, Ruby asks for stories. Ruby’s requests for more stories incites in Ivan a desire to remember what life was like before the circus, before Mack. This desire invigorates a childhood passion for art that may just be the key to all of their freedom.
Like with any adaptation, the question which frequently comes to mind is, “what does this film offer that the original source material does not?” For many, it’s merely the excitement which comes from seeing something you enjoyed in one format brought to life in another. You like comic books? Here’re 23 interconnected films making up a cinematic universe. You like video games? Here’s a series of six films that adapt the larger plot from the first game. You like books? Just right now, you can choose from adaptions like Words on Bathroom Walls, The Secret Garden, and Artemis Fowl. That’s certainly an appeal for having a tale like Ivan’s translated from Applegate’s book into this mash-up of CGI animals in a live action setting. To see these characters, based on truth, imagined by Applegate, existing as though real is extraordinarily enticing. For the most part, the digital effects are blended seamlessly so that the interaction of the animals overlaid upon real world objects to appear as tangible as actors Cranston, Ramon Rodriguez, and Ariana Greenblatt when they share scenes. Without this tactile sense, Ivan loses much of the wonder and emotional connection required to remain engrossed in the story.
And Ivan does possess wonder as the vocal performances from the central animal cast — Rockwell, Jolie, Danny DeVito, and Prince — will make a believer out of its audience. In a strange way, it’s because Ivan feels, from top to bottom, like one of the classic Disney stories in its original animated run. There’s a brightness to the sets that feels warm and inviting, even when the story hits its most dour moments, so that the Disney Effect is ever-present. The animals are anthropomorphized in that Disney way where they are as close to their natural counterparts visually and personality-wise as possible, yet are imbued with more humanity by way of the vocal performances. The difference here is that rather than hand-drawn animation born from physical performances and real sets (example: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), the digital creations overlap onto the real. Jolie, especially, delivers a performance that makes Stella far more than the grand matron elephant the audience sees her to be, but a soft, tender member of this hodge-podge animal collective. Rockwell, too, absolutely charms as Ivan, bringing an aching soulfulness through the digital confines, making audiences fall in love with the performer’s digital avatar. Though used in smaller measure, Ron Funches (Harley Quinn), Mike White himself, Helen Mirren (Hobbs & Shaw), Phillipa Soo (Hamilton), and musical artist Chaka Khan each make their respective mark in small and endearing ways.
While this film is entirely based on Applegate’s novel, the story itself is inspired by real events, and the pre-credits bring that home. There is a bittersweetness to Ivan’s story and The One and Only Ivan serves as an excellent way to set the stage for parents to discuss environmental issues with children old enough to understand. Ivan is truly a tale of empathy, making it a perfect fit into the Disney catalog. Keep in mind, though, that while Ivan possesses a PG rating, some aspects may unsettle younger audience members — not in the presentation, mind you, just in the inclusion. For context, less Artax from The Neverending Story and a bit more Bambi’s mom. But while loss is a common trope of Disney films, there’s enough light-hearted silliness that even the briefest of sorrow is replaced with hope. Plus, as EoM editor Crystal Davidson observed, “it’s not a children’s film without a fart joke,” so never fear — Ivan brings the levity as well.
Available for streaming on Disney+ August 21st, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.