“The One and Only Ivan”, which was released on Disney+ a few weeks ago, is a safe and sappy product which does not overcome its several glaring shortcomings much. While I was quite distracted by those talking animals in the film from the beginning, I was also dissatisfied with its weak narrative and flat characterization, and that made me feel more distant to whatever is happening to its animal hero about whom I was supposed to care.
The story is mainly told via the viewpoint of Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a big Western lowland gorilla who has spent most of his life in the enclosure of some big shopping mall building. As he comes to remember later in the movie, he initially lived somewhere in a mountain jungle area of East Africa when he was very young, but he was sent to US after being captured by poachers, and that was how he came to live with Mack (Ramón Rodríguez), who raised Ivan as a pet but then eventually came to use Ivan as one of various attractions in his daily circus show in the shopping mall building.
As trained by Mack for a long time, Ivan is always ready to look angry and aggressive in front of his audiences, but things have not been so good to Ivan and his animal friends because the number of the audiences has been decreasing during recent years. While he seems to care about Ivan and other animals to some degree, Mack also has to find any possible way for stimulating his circus business, and then he comes to buy a little baby African bush elephant called Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince) because Ruby may attract more audiences than before.
Not so surprisingly, it turns out that Mack is correct in his business intuition. Although she is still shy and insecure, Ruby quickly draws more audiences as being guided by Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), an old, gentle African bush elephant who has been a lifelong friend to Ivan. Right from their first encounter, Stella tenderly regards Ruby as a little daughter to be taken care of, and Ruby willingly accepts Stella’s affection while also befriending not only Ivan but also other animals around them.
One of them is Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito), a stray dog who has virtually resided in Ivan’s cage for a while although Mack does not approve of this at all. Although he often says that he prefers to enjoy freedom outside, Bob spends most of his daily life with Ivan, and he also finds himself attracted to Snickers (voiced by Helen Mirren), a white poodle dog which is a current pet belonging to Mack.
And there is Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), a little plucky girl whose father works for Mack as a janitor. She likes hanging around Ivan and other animals, and she is the one who notices Ivan’s certain artistic talent for the first time. As a matter of fact, he can draw pictures with those crayons given to him at one point, and Julia is certainly excited about that. When she later shows his latest works to Mack, Mack is merely amused at times, but then he comes to see another business opportunity, and, of course, that leads to another big success for him and his circus.
Now some of you may think this is too unrealistic, but the screenplay by Mike White is based on K.A. Applegate’s acclaimed children’s novel of the same name, which was loosely inspired by the true story of a Western Lowland gorilla who really could draw pictures. As depicted in the movie, that gorilla drew lots of attention in public for his artistic talent in real life, and that accordingly led to the protests demanding his animal rights.
This is surely a fascinating story subject, but White’s screenplay never delves that deep into how Ivan and his animals have been exploited by Mack. While it is rather murky about how Mack actually feels about Ivan and other animals, the movie also feels a bit too lightweight in the depiction of its animal characters’ living condition, and I often wondered how the hell Mack’s workplace looks so neat and clean even though it has been managed only by him and his very few employees including Julia’s father.
In addition, the movie generates a sort of uncanny valley effect, which is not so far from what I observed from the trailer of “The Lion King” (2019). I did not mind the talking CGI animal figures in “The Jungle Book” (2016) probably because I could easily accept it a fantasy, but the ones in “The One and Only Ivan” felt artificial and distracting to me in contrast, probably because I was constantly aware of the gap between human characters and animal characters throughout the story. Now I am reminded again of a quote from W.G. Sebald, which my late friend/mentor Roger Ebert often used in his reviews: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”
You may be able to overlook this inherent flaw of the film, but it still stumbles due to its weak story and characters. Despite the solid voice performances by its various cast members including Sam Rockwell, Danny DeVito, Angelina Jolie, Helen Mirren, and Brooklynn Prince, most of animal characters in the film are more or less than broad caricature figures to be used for gags and jokes at times, and the same thing can be said about the human characters in the story, though Bryan Cranston and Ariana Greenblatt try as much as they can do with their respective functional roles.
On the whole, “The One and Only Ivan” is not as singular as its very title suggests, and I would rather recommend several better animal films such as “Togo” (2019), which is currently available on Disney+. Even its canine hero cannot talk at all, I found myself rooting for him more than expected, and I also admired the considerable technical efforts put into the screen. In case of “The One and Only Ivan”, I did not care much as recognizing its numerous artificial aspects, and I only became mildly interested in what actually happened to that real-life gorilla. That is not a good sign at all, you know.