Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan (2020)

Director: Thea Sharrock

Writer: Mike White

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Ramon Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, and Bryan Cranston

Plot: Ivan, a silverback gorilla, is the star of a local circus, but longs for a life outside of his cage.

Review: Circuses are in a weird transitional period right now. Thus, as are circus movies. You can’t just make a movie idolizing the circus anymore. It feels wrong and insincere. I’m looking at you, The Greatest Showman. But, companies like Disney don’t want to completely throw the whole business away either. After all, there’s a reason the industry was as resilient as it was. There’s something magical about the circus. As long as we ignore that deep, dark underbelly, it’s fun and gives us beautiful, memorable moments. That’s where the live action Dumbo failed. It made things a bit too dark. So, movies about the big top can’t go too hard or too soft, especially when aimed squarely at children. Both are problematic. So, what is a movie like The One and Only Ivan to do? Walk the middle line? Trying to appease both sides? Nah. Turns out that doesn’t work out all that well either.

That idea of walking the middle line is exactly what makes The Only and Only Ivan just barely work. It’s lacking any sort of punch. They tried to keep the majesty of the circus by having the animals be mostly happy with their all-around good guy trainer. That’s fine I guess. It’s not realistic, but it’s also a kids’ movie. Do whatever you need to in order to make things work. Buuuut, then you can’t have Ivan and the others clamoring for a better life outside. I mean… I guess you can, but it lowers the stakes rather dramatically. Why should we root for Ivan to roam freely when he seemed just as content and taken care of behind bars? I mean… as a rational human, I know that a gorilla can’t possibly be happy behind bars. But, that’s taking reality into this movie. We have to look at what’s presented on screen. And, you could make the argument that these particular animals seem just fine where they are. Again, it just kinda deflates any tension from the movie. I honestly would’ve been cool with whatever happened to these characters and that’s not something you should be able to say about a movie. You should want what the lead wants.

Other than the conflicted message, I don’t really have a whole lot of negative things to say about The One and Only Ivan. The visuals were all pretty good. There’s a few touches of that signature Disney magic. A couple of the shots gave me goosebumps. One particular image at the end will especially stick with me forever. The special effects are actually really good. They had a nice balance between realism and cartoony. We’re not dealing with the uncanny talking animal levels of The Lion King remake or the scary look of the Lady and the Tramp remake here. It’s right where it should be somewhere in the middle. I think other talking animal movies in the future should take notes. Speaking of, all of the cast does a fantastic job. The animal voice actors all seemed to fit their characters really well. Sam Rockwell is the perfect voice for a sympathetic gorilla character. And, the human actors all did a good job too. A lot of the ringleader’s likability comes from the fact that it’s the impeccable Bryan Cranston in the role. You kind of can’t help but love the guy.

Overall, I did enjoy The One and Only Ivan. I never felt like I wasted my time with it. It just didn’t blow me away either. I was never fully invested in the story and the message felt a little muddled. I wouldn’t turn people away from it, especially families with younger kids. But, I wouldn’t say you have to rush to Disney+ to watch this either.

TL;DR: The One and Only Ivan plays it a bit too safe to be engaging, but is still a fun, well made romp for families.

Score: 6/10 (Ok)

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