Ivan is a majestic silverback gorilla who loves his home (a circus-themed mall), his job (scaring kids during his daily show at the mall), and his family (his seemingly kind-hearted owner, plus the collective of other animals). Ivan’s life is great, because he’s never quite allowed himself to think about anything else, but that won’t last long. Thea Sharrock’s touching and fleeting take on Katherine Applegate’s children’s book gracefully weaves together the cookie-cutter obvious with some headier themes and ideas, offering up a kid’s movie that doesn’t entirely talk down to its younger audience. Adapted by Mike White — who also voices a neurotic seal at the mall circus — The One and Only Ivan is told from Ivan’s perspective (voiced by Sam Rockwell), creating a sense of discovery that helps sneak in some of the tougher ideas without fully scarring its more sensitive viewers. Initially unfolding a bit like a fable in which Ivan is the (one and only) star, the film presents a whimsical world in which the cracks are just starting to show.
Ivan performs every day for packs of young kids, and he does it alongside all of his other animals friends. And when the show is over, he spends time with Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), who draws him pictures, while her dad George (Ramon Rodriguez) serves as the right-hand man for the fast-talking owner Mack (Bryan Cranston). At night, Ivan hangs out with a stray pup who sneaks into his enclosure (voiced by Danny DeVito) and hears stories from his oldest friend, the wise elephant Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie). Lovely voice work fits in nicely alongside some strong visual effects work, and for its first act, The One and Only Ivan feels, frankly, pretty generic, but it also seems like the movie is lulling its audience into the kind of complacency its titular gorilla has (possibly) enjoyed.
Mack, toggling between dedicated animal lover and rumpled business owner, is losing money at a fast pace; circus-themed malls and their attendant animal acts aren’t the money-makers they used to be. Enter the show’s new star, a tiny baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince), whom everyone adores and an ailing Stella happily takers under her trunk. But it’s from there where the arrival of Ruby might inspire the questioning of where her family is? Setting into motion that same line of questioning for each and every one of her animal colleagues.
Playing off the knowing that Elephant’s have long memories, Stella regales Ruby with stories of her in-the-wild youth that inevitably push Ivan to remember his own early days. As tragedy unfolds at the mall-set circus, Stella moves out of the picture, and Ivan finds himself promising to do the impossible: to take care of Ruby, and in the way Stella would have wanted. A dizzying series of events follows, ramping up the energy and setting the stage for some bitter truths and a pinch of madcap adventure. Ivan, always interested in Julia’s artistic passions, begins to make his own art (pointedly protest art to be exact), as Ruby starts being trained for her life as a performing elephant. The third act is filled with Ivan’s confused reflecting, as he grapples with the implications of his own life — with flashbacks implemented.
But all this happens in a rather rushed ninety-four-minute runtime, flying through character moments and many story beats with a flash. Admirably, the film doesn’t turn away from its tougher, more nuanced material — such as the theme of making amends for both the human and animal characters. But everything builds to a conclusion that attempts to meld whimsy and hard-won realism that definitely has its heartfelt moments. The thing is, a good chunk of all this fades fast. Rather than a new family favorite in-the-making, The One and Only Ivan arrives with a commendable headiness that, as a whole, is just vaguely watchable; a mixed-bag that’ll likely disappear into the streaming world ether. From its see-sawing tone and its rushed structure, The One and Only Ivan has an admirable willingness to dive into some sophisticated material but also comes and gos, fleeting into generic forgettability.
The One and Only Ivan is available to stream on Disney+