Dir: Thea Sharrock. Starring: Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Brooklynn Prince, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo. PG cert, 90 mins
“Hi, I’m Ivan. I’m a gorilla,” are the first words of Disney’s latest mammalian tearjerker. It’s a simple introduction to a simple film, humble in its ambitions and upfront about its schmaltz. Originally pegged for a cinematic release (in pre-coronavirus times), it may find a more welcoming home on Disney+, where it can sit side by side with the studio’s rich catalogue of gentle, unfussy nature films.
The One and Only Ivan takes its name from a real primate, stolen as an infant from the rainforests of Congo and put on display in a 14ft by 14ft enclosure at a Washington shopping centre. He was confined there, for 27 years – no light or breeze, just concrete walls on all sides. In 1987, animal rights groups rallied the local population to protest against the centre. Ivan spent the rest of his life in the Atlanta Zoo. He died in 2012.
Here, Ivan’s life story runs like pure fantasy, taking its cues from KA Applegate’s children’s book, which takes the bare bones of the truth and fictionalises the rest. At the Big Top Mall & Video Arcade, Ivan (rendered in CGI and voiced by Sam Rockwell) headlines a small, indoor circus. It hosts a small collection of performing animals, also CGI creations: a baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), a rabbit in a firetruck (Ron Funches), a seal (Mike White), a sleekly coiffured poodle (Helen Mirren), and an African elephant (Angelina Jolie). Ivan’s pen is also home to a stray dog (Danny DeVito), a chancer who dreams of kibble. Each night, he curls up on Ivan’s bulging potbelly.
The animals showboat, people clap – they then return to their cramped, colourless enclosures. Some have been here so long that they no longer remember what the wild was like. The place is owned by Mack (Bryan Cranston), whose crisp ringmaster uniform and faux-English twang are mere razzle-dazzle, a defence against the creeping desperation that rises right out of his financial ledgers and into his busy, nervy mind.
Mack cares deeply for Ivan and his friends. But, while Cranston may lend him a gentle heart, there’s no side-stepping exploitation while living creatures are being treated as cheap commodities. And so, he steps into the role of de facto antagonist. While it’s easy to hate the man with the whip, the man chasing profits, The One and Only Ivan questions whether it matters at all what’s in Mack’s heart – this is not where animals belong.
Business is bad. Ivan blames himself. In a last-ditch effort to drum up publicity, Mack buys a baby elephant, Ruby (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince), whose preciousness makes Ivan feel a little like the ape Norma Desmond. “Have I lost my edge?” he wonders, though Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), whose father works for the circus, still slides paints and crayons under the bars for him to experiment with. Something awakens inside of him – a desire for freedom, both personal and creative.
The film, directed by Thea Sharrock, will inevitably drum up the same arguments over what our CGI future brings: innovation or an invasion of the dead-eyed and soulless? But the textures of fur and feather here look impressively realistic, the characters given life by an A-list cast – take Rockwell and DeVito’s warm, scratchy vocals or the regal confidence of Jolie. A few clumsy jokes aside, including an extended bit on chickens crossing roads, there’s much to admire about The One and Only Ivan. As Stella wisely intones: “Humans can surprise you.”
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