While trapped in a cage at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, a gorilla named Ivan (voice of Sam Rockwell) teams up with a caring elephant named Stella (voice of Angelina Jolie) to piece together his mysterious past and hatch a cunning escape from their shared captivity.
Thea Sharrock’s The One and Only Ivan is one of those movies that you can put on for your kids in the background while they are playing on their tablets or just running around the house. It may capture their attention for a few minutes, but I genuinely cannot see them getting completely sucked into this story which is disappointing considering the fact that it’s based on a true story that is actually quite dark and emotionally moving.
Instead of telling this story in a powerful way that does the real-life story justice, the film panders so much to children that it sometimes comes across as a little bit cringeworthy. There are dozens of lazy one-liners that some youngsters are going to laugh at, but anybody over the age of four is probably going to find tiresome and more frustrating than some dad jokes even.
But aside from the weak humor, the film’s moments of genuine compassion and heartfelt character dynamics are too few and far between. The best parts of the entire movie have to revolve around the relationship between Ivan, Stella, and her daughter Ruby. Ivan knows what it’s like to be stuck in a cage and be forced to perform in front of dozens of little kids every single day. He knows that out in the wild, he can be free and live a peaceful life without having to always put on a show for people. Ruby is too young and innocent to realize the dangers of being trapped in a cage her whole life which is why Ivan wants to do his best to break Ruby and the others out of the circus so they can roam free and have a wonderful life.
At its core, it’s a sweet tale of a gorilla that feels like he cannot have a life of his own and wants to do whatever he can in order to gain his freedom. The problem with The One and Only Ivan isn’t the actual plotline of the movie, just the execution. Screenwriter Mike White just simply doesn’t take the story as seriously as he should have. If you actually go and look into the real-life story which I have, you will find that it’s actually quite heartbreaking but ultimately rewarding. This film however is just a mindless series of events that really don’t amount to much because the film’s tone is far too comedic to be taken seriously.
If there is something worthy of praise here, it’s most certainly the voice acting from the entire cast. Sam Rockwell is wonderfully energetic and full of charisma as the titular Ivan, and Angelina Jolie feels quiet and reserved but ever-so endearing as Stella. There truly isn’t a weak link among the entire cast. Bryan Cranston can be a little bit goofy and over-the-top in the role of Mack, who owns the Big Top Mall but even still, he is a delight to watch and delivers yet another good performance in his filmography.
Not only that but the motion capture work here is absolutely stellar. Just like Andy Serkis in the Planet of the Apes trilogy, Ivan the gorilla looks so lifelike it’s a little bit uncanny. Yes, he does talk in the movie but it never detracts away from the fact that this fake gorilla looks like an actual gorilla. The other animals in the film look incredibly real as well, and I have to give props to the motion capture and visual effects team here.
Plus, the ending, while extremely predictable even for those who are unfamiliar with the true story, is without a doubt heartwarming and is sure to bring a smile on your face. It’s just a big shame that the rest of The One and Only Ivan wasn’t as endearing and fun as its conclusion.
The One and Only Ivan constantly settles for cheesy humor and is a giant missed opportunity to tell a genuinely heartfelt and inspiring story.
Overall Grade: C
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements
Directed by: Thea Sharrock
Distributed by: Disney+
Release Date: August 21, 2020
Running Time: 95 minutes