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The One And Only Ivan Movie Review: Talking Animals Done Right

The One And Only Ivan Movie Poster
Animals are walking in silhouette across a hand painted sunset

I look forward to talking animal movies with a bit of existential dread. I want these movies to exist. I want them to do well. I want them to be good. In so many cases, however, they don’t deliver. Things look great, you’re blown away, then the animals start to talk and the spell is broken. The One And Only Ivan has to deliver a whole collection of animals interacting with people in this live-action film, so I walked in with my expectations set sufficiently low.

Ivan (Sam Rockwell) is a 400-pound silverback gorilla living in an enclosure inside of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. He’s kept company by Stella (Angelina Jolie), an aging elephant, and Bob (Danny DeVito), a stray dog who sneaks inside whenever he can. Mack (Bryan Cranston), the owner of the Big Top Mall and ringmaster during their daily shows, is worried about low attendance. He brings in baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to create some buzz and sell more tickets. Ruby does more than sell tickets-she forces Ivan to remember his past. This creates a longing in him to live free. With some help from Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the janitor’s (Ramón Rodríguez) daughter, things at the mall are about to change for everyone.

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and Bob the dog (voiced by Danny DeVito) in Disney’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, based on the award-winning book by Katherine Applegate and directed by Thea Sharrock. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Ivan is in a tire swing and bob is standing on a tree inside of Ivan's cage.
© 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I’m not going to say that the CGI animals in The One And Only Ivan were perfectly rendered. They were, however, pretty darn good. All were done well enough to keep me fully engaged in the movie the entire time, without pulling me out of the story to think, “Well that looked weird.” Better than that, the voice cast truly brought this animation to life. It wasn’t just that they looked good enough to not be distracting, The One And Only Ivan made me care about these animals.

Caring is what is at the heart of The One And Only Ivan. No one is particularly bad. Mack and George, the janitor, want what’s best for everyone. The idea that keeping an animal locked up in a cage isn’t right has to be learned as the film progresses. It gets there eventually.

The One And Only Ivan is based on a popular children’s novel by K. A. Applegate. As you might expect, the film version does have some differences from the book. Additional animals are added to the story, and one of the more troubling scenes from the book is not quite as dark in the film. The action in the third act of the movie is also a bit different, but with a similar resolution. I expect fans of the book to be pleased with the film, despite those changes.

It’s worth noting that The One And Only Ivan is very loosely based on a real-life gorilla who did indeed live inside a shopping mall. Stick around at the end of the film to get a little bit of the real Ivan’s story. Confession here: this part made me tear up more than I want to admit.

At the heart of The One And Only Ivan is an overall sweetness. It has some dark moments and sadness, but those are more than overcome with the sincerity and humor in the film. I didn’t expect much from a talking animal film, but I left with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction.

You can stream The One And Only Ivan on Disney+ starting on August 21, 2020.

About The One And Only Ivan

An adaptation of the award-winning book about one very special gorilla, Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan” is an unforgettable tale about the beauty of friendship, the power of visualization and the significance of the place one calls home. Ivan is a 400-pound silverback gorilla who shares a communal habitat in a suburban shopping mall with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog, and various other animals. He has few memories of the jungle where he was captured, but when a baby elephant named Ruby arrives, it touches something deep within him. Ruby is recently separated from her family in the wild, which causes him to question his life, where he comes from and where he ultimately wants to be. The heartwarming adventure, which comes to the screen in an impressive hybrid of live-action and CGI, is based on Katherine Applegate’s bestselling book, which won numerous awards upon its publication in 2013, including the Newbery Medal.

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