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film review

A gorilla named Ivan tries to piece together his past with the help of an elephant named Stella in The One and Only Ivan.Disney+

  • The One and Only Ivan
  • Directed by Thea Sharrock
  • Written by Mike White, based on the book by Katherine Applegate
  • Starring Bryan Cranston and the voices of Sam Rockwell and Danny DeVito
  • Classification PG; 85 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

Of the many, many, many (many!) unfortunate events of 2020, one that stands out at this writing is the fact that Robert Downey Jr.‘s Dolittle received a theatrical release, and The One and Only Ivan has not. Mostly, this is a matter of bad timing between two talking-animal movies. The dreadful Dolittle squeaked onto big screens in January, back when the act of watching Downey Jr. mug with monkeys seemed like the most grave injustice of the year. The One and Only Ivan, meanwhile, was scheduled for a summer bow, before COVID-19 sent it straight to Disney+.

But whereas Dolittle took the idea of chattering chimps and verbose vultures and ran it into the ground, The One and Only Ivan elevates its babbling baboons and erudite elephants to a level of graceful storytelling and emotional catharsis. The film might only be available to stream in the emptiness of your own home, but it has enough big-screen ambition that you can easily imagine it holding an entire theatre’s audience rapt.

Bryan Cranston, left, stars as the operator of a circus seeing dwindling crowds.Disney+

In adapting the children’s book by K.A. Applegate, screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) manage an impressive achievement – the pair have made a family film that treats its audience with respect and care. While there are a handful of concessions to the genre – bodily-fluid gags, easy pratfalls – White and Sharrock are mostly interested in urging their young viewers to consider serious questions of cruelty and autonomy, all without the heavy hand of message-movie prodding.

Like Dumbo crossed with Curious George, the movie follows the exploits of gentle giant Ivan, a gorilla who entertains increasingly dwindling crowds in a fading shopping mall. His fellow circus residents, including an elephant named Stella and a dog named Bob, don’t question their existence or the agenda of their owner (Bryan Cranston) much until a baby elephant comes along and starts to wonder when she might roam free.

Filming in live-action, with the animals rendered in ultra-detailed CGI, Sharrock does a slick job of marrying the mundane with the fantastical. And her voice cast is delightful, with Sam Rockwell lending Ivan true depth of character, and comedic players Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren and White himself giving range to the circus’s other critters.

The animals are rendered in very slick CGI.Disney+

Although the narrative beats will be familiar to anyone who has seen any movie involving caged animals – do you think the Mouse House would unleash an unhappy ending on its young audiences/future Disney+ subscribers? – the last third of the film still packs an emotional wallop. One that, in its tenderness and sincerity, serves as a dispiriting reminder of just how crassly most contemporary family films are engineered. While there are so many Dolittles, there is only one Ivan.

The One and Only Ivan is available to stream on Disney+ starting Aug. 21

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