Released: 21st August 2020
Seen: 2nd April 2021
In 2012, author Katherine Applegate released The One And Only Ivan. The novel was based on the real story of a circus gorilla named Ivan who was kept in the middle of a shopping mall until a large petition and the threat of a massive boycott got him transferred to a zoo where he would have something resembling actual freedom. The book was a smash hit, winning several awards and appearing on several “must read’ lists so an adaptation was inevitable and Disney just happened to be the ones to do it… and their version got nominated for an Oscar, hence why we’re talking about it.
The story of The One And Only Ivan is basically what I described in a single sentence, a big gorilla performs for the circus and eventually tries to get to freedom. The entire film takes place from the POV of Ivan (Sam Rockwell) as he lords over the circus as the headliner… or at least he’s the headliner right up until the adorable baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) joins and the owner of the circus, Mack (Bryan Cranston) tries to turn her into the new headliner. Ivan finally decides to use his strength for something important and the plan to break all the creatures out of the circus begins.
Let’s get the Oscar stuff out of the way before we address the other elements of The One And Only Ivan, this is nominated for Visual Effects and most of those go into the creation of the creature effects which are sublime. I genuinely couldn’t tell at times what was just a CGI animal and what was real (so imagine my shock when I watched a behind the scenes video to find that it looks like it was all fake, which is good considering the story being told).
The One And Only Ivan is effectively the logical endpoint of the amazing technology that the Lion King remake showed off, except this movie also worked out how to give the animals expressions so they work as actual characters.
It’s very impressive how the animals are integrated with the actors, the effect is practically flawless and really charming at times. It’s so perfect that I was able to actually embrace the story and feel the tension of certain moments. If you don’t get the look of the animals just right, no one’s going to really care when one of them almost gets run over by a car but this film really pulls it off and makes the animals realistic enough to fit into the world but expressive enough that I actually give a damn.
Then we get to the rest of The One And Only Ivan and it’s honestly just kind of fine. Doing a story about getting a bunch of animals out of a circus and into a zoo or somewhere where they have room to live is all well and good, the performances are fine and there’s a few really good scenes but… I’ll be blunt, they don’t make the circus life look that bad. Mack isn’t some abusive owner like he apparently is in the book (guess who never read the book?) which means that the reason they want to get out of the circus is just that they’re bored and it seems like the thing to do.
Am I saying I kinda needed Mack to be abusive to the animals?… yeah, kinda. You’re doing a story about how the circus is bad for the animals, but here they’re all well fed and clearly loved and cared for by an owner who might lose his temper once but he never does anything about it. At best he insists that they practice a trick for a little bit longer… never hits anyone, barely raises his voice to the animals. He’s honestly harsher on the guy who guards the mall at night than he is to any of the animals, which pulls some of the power out of the story.
What also doesn’t help, and I’m gonna try and explain this without getting too spoilery so forgive my vagueness, is that everything is just too easy. The animals want to break out of the mall so they do it with no actual consequences. There’s a protest that maybe takes up half a minute, the ending is just kind of ticking boxes and rushing along without actually making things difficult for anyone.
Now, this is most likely because The One And Only Ivan is a kids’ film and they don’t think kids would sit through a more difficult ending. I personally believe that kids are able to handle a lot more than that but even with that problem, this is still a pretty decent kids flick. Though we spend most of the time with Ivan, Ruby and a dog called Bob (Danny DeVito), there are enough funny side characters to help keep the film interesting. It’s definitely got a big case of “Let’s get this over with” and kind of rushes through the ending to get to a happy climax but it’s still funny.
The One And Only Ivan is charming enough to entertain the kiddies for a while, with visuals that are impressive enough that I can at least understand why the movie is now an Oscar nominee. I can’t say it’s a film that’ll become a classic, indeed I can’t really imagine that anyone is really going to be talking about it that long after the last awards for the effects are handed out, but I’ve seen worse things that killed an hour and a half of time.