The One and Only Ivan showcases wonderful CGI and a good heart, but the attempt to balance child-like wonder with more serious drama derails the film’s tone.
The One and Only Ivan, adapted from the children’s book of the same name, tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla whose existence consists of daily shows in a modest circus-style performance at the mall where he resides. That gorilla, inspired by the true story of a shopping mall gorilla and voiced with charm by Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), takes pride in his duties as the show’s climactic King Kong performance – he beats his chests and roars a few times for the kids in attendance before returning to the shabby cage he has inhabited for decades, which he shares with a vagabond dog. I suspect from this description you are imaging the tone of this movie to be anywhere from The Secret Life of Pets to The Cove. The film’s biggest obstacle is that it never really figures out where on that scale it wants to reside.
On the one hand, there’s a cute family-friendly story about a gorilla who takes pride in his showbiz position as the main event of a show. He works with his coterie of animal acquaintances to try to save the mall show from financial ruin, and eventually takes on a mentor role for a young elephant (voiced by Brooklynn Prince, of The Florida Project). Eventually, they decide to attempt an escape to return to nature, and hijinks ensue.
On the other hand, we’ve got a movie about a faltering roadside showman who refuses to see the impending demise of his business, and the ill treatment his business model reaps upon his animals. Mack, the aforementioned showman, played by the wonderful Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), is not depicted as an overtly cruel or abusive man. In his way, he seems to genuinely care about, at least, Ivan. And yet, it remains impossible to dismiss that these animals are kept in slipshod cages; the death of one animal occurs with nary a mention from Mack beyond a sort of “Show Must Go On!” gusto. Cranston’s performance seems trapped ping-ponging between these scenes – in one he shows clear love for Ivan, when just moments earlier he feels on the cusp of violence towards a non-responsive baby elephant.
The ill balance is perhaps more frustrating because some of the material, here, really works. One scene between Mack and Ivan, late in the film, showcases real empathy and decency as Mack reflects on what Ivan has meant to his life – it’s actually quite touching. Yet, other moments are marred by humor that’s far too broad, or animal treatment that’s far too unpleasant. Ivan is eventually given art supplies by the annoyingly precious child of one of Mack’s employees, and almost immediately the great ape begins to show some talent in basic artwork. It remains impossible to engage with the “joy” of the story when you see such an intelligent animal locked in a tiny cage.
It is worth noting that the production values are top notch. The CGI animals look impressive and, despite what I imagine must have been a significantly smaller budget, the animal mouths moving with human speech are far less distracting than in something like Favreau’s The Lion King. Each animal is voiced by a recognizable performer: beyond Rockwell, Angelina Jolie’s (Girl, Interrupted) matronly elephant, Helen Mirren (The Queen)’s poofy dog, Danny DeVito (Throw Momma from the Train)’s dopey street dog, and Phillipa Soo (Hamilton)’s parrot round out the impressive voice cast.
By trying to serve as a family friendly movie and a more mature film about animal rights at the same time, neither is rendered as effectively as it could have been. A serious drama about the real Ivan could make for compelling, harrowing viewing; a more pure kids movie could have worked as well. Alas, they’ve split the baby in such a way that neither is all that satisfying.