The One and Only Ivan is a rara avis for the Walt Disney Studios: a family film not based on a franchise-driven IP but an original work to the extent that a literary adaptation can be considered original. Its circus-like setting may immediately evoke both the animated and the Tim Burton live-action versions of Dumbo. But it also reminds those of us with far-reaching memories of the kind of family-friendly films Disney produced in the 1950s and 60s. It is also the type of mid-level budget film that Disney and other studios used to crank out effortlessly and that used to be their bread and butter. Films that have now found a new home in streaming services after being pushed aside by behemoths like the Disney’s very own Marvel movies and the Fast and Furious series. In fact, The One and Only Ivan was scheduled to be released on theaters this past July 8,, before the pandemic shut everything down; it would most probably have been eaten alive by whatever multi-million-dollar production would have been on screens at the time. With its release on Disney+, this unassuming, unpretentious, deeply moving and yet flawed film has now a fighting chance to find an audience.
Based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel by Katherine Applegate —itself inspired by the story of a gorilla who developed a talent for painting, was kept in captivity inside a shopping mall and became a cause célèbre for animal rights activists—, the script by Mike White (Nacho Libre, Beatriz at Dinner) surrounds the titular 400-pound silverback (voiced by a zen-like Sam Rockwell) with a coterie of colorful characters: elderly elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), Frankie the Seal (White), Murphy the rabbit (Ron Funches), poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren) and parrot Thelma (Philippa Soo), all stars of Mack’s (Bryan Cranston) Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan was adopted by Mack and his then-wife when he was just a baby. But babies grow up and if you saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes you know teen apes can be quite unruly. Ivan has been the headliner of Mack’s circus since he founded it years ago. It’s an easy gig: all Ivan has to do is come out at the end and roar ferociously to scare the living daylights out of the little kids in the audience. But audiences are dwindling, driven away by whatever new form of entertainment seems to be claiming their attention (the script is incredibly vague about when the film’s story is taking place; based on wardrobe, car models and the actual video games on display, my guess is sometime between the late 80s/early 90s). Ivan feels responsible for the decline but as his best friend, Bob the Mutt (Danny DeVito), keeps reminding him, he is still the “one and only Ivan.”
The circus’ fortunes change for the best when Mack acquires a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklyn Prince) from a bankrupt circus and turns her into a headlining act with Stella who immediately bonds with her. At first, Ivan is miffed at being pushed aside by this upstart, but once she befriends him, he begins to remember his past life in the jungle where he was born. An ailing Stella asks him to look after Ruby and makes him promise to take her to that safe space “where humans make amends.” At the same time, encouraged by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of mall employee George (Puerto Rican actor Ramón Rodríguez), Ivan takes up drawing, triggering more memories. I’ll leave readers to discover how both story strands come together in a climax that feels rather rushed given how deliberate the storytelling is. For this is a patient film, one that slowly grows on you, that is far more interested in the ride than the destination.
George Miller’s Babe (1995) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998) are the pinnacle, the standard-bearers, for which all films featuring anthropomorphic characters should be measured. And in that regards, The One and Only Ivan is not that bad; not an instant classic but one that accomplishes what it sets out to do and whose earnestness wins you over. Both Babe films are whimsical, gentle, clever and oh-so-human; they created not one but two truly believable worlds and introduced audiences to a colorful cast of well-rounded animal and human characters. And even though The One and Only Ivan has a heart as huge as the Babe films, I do wish White had spent more time fleshing out his supporting cast of animals, that they had been better integrated into the story. That they didn’t feel like add-ons.
Babe and Babe: Pig in the City tackled matters of life and death, about our place in society, what separates us as a species and what unites us. The One and Only Ivan offers similarly grown-up ideas about identity and free will. And, like the Babe films before it, The One and Only Ivan is also about kindness, about how we treat others and what that treatment says about us (a revolutionary notion in these times for a family film considering how unkind most of humanity has been towards each other during this pandemic). White and director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) do not demonize their human characters: Mack is presented as flawed, desperate, holding onto straws to ensure the survival of his business and doing his darnedest best to keep it together. And the conditions these animals are living in are not exactly deplorable. White and Sharrock do not overplay their hand, giving their story and key characters room to breathe and the ideas to take hold in the minds of its young audience.
Like all movies inspired by a true story, The One and Only Ivan introduces us to the real deal during the end credits: his story, needless to say, is far more compelling, darker and dramatic than the one we’ve been told. And yet, I cannot condemn the filmmakers for the many liberties they have taken with it. Just be prepared to have tissue paper at hand to wipe that tear (or several) from your child’s face as you watch this movie together. Hell, you may even need one yourself.
The One and Only Ivan is streaming on Disney+.