The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan is hard to hate, but maybe not hard enough

Though it’s more heartfelt and less opportunistic than most talking-animal movies, it’s still mostly for eight-year-olds.

There seems to be a popular notion that film critics are, by and large, out there to spread hate and misery and negativity — that, in order to be a film critic, you have to be predestined to hate things rather than love them and that your standards are impossibly higher than your average person’s. I don’t tend to think that about myself, especially not when I publish 900 words about why I think the movie where Russell Crowe drives around killing people is actually pretty good. But everyone has blind spots and everyone has moments they dread — and for me that moment came during The One and Only Ivan.

The One and Only Ivan, based on a children’s book published in 2012 which was in turn based on an actual gorilla named Ivan, is a movie that is designed not to be hated. It’s a movie that does everything in its power to warm the cockles of your heart. It’s 93 minutes of arguing that animals should not be locked up in cages and made to wiggle around for our enjoyment, and it’s impossible to be a person with love in their heart, watch this and disagree with that idea. But I didn’t enjoy The One and Only Ivan very much in spite of all this. Does this mean that I am filled to the brim with haterade? What does it say about me that this corny movie for eight year olds bored the everloving shit out of me? Are we obliged to appreciate good intentions? The road to hell is paved with them, I’m told, but I don’t think the road to hell is paved with loveable CGI animals with funny voices, is it?!

I suppose the majority of the problem comes from the fact that, good intentions or not, The One and Only Ivan takes the extremely overplayed form of the family movie where the majority of the characters are CGI inventions who spout witty dialogue in the voices of a varied collection of comedians, musicians and Oscar winners. Ivan, in this case, is a domesticated gorilla voiced by Sam Rockwell who has spent his entire life in captivity. 

First, he was kept as a pet by Mack (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, who eventually left him because Mack was too gorilla-obsessed. This, in turn, forced Mack to open the Big Top Mall, a mall whose central attraction is the animal circus at its centre — and the show from the one and only Ivan, who people come to see from across the land. The Big Top Mall has seen better days, however, and the inclusion of a new attraction in the form of a baby elephant (voiced by The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Price) only serves to trigger Ivan’s wanderlust and desire to get back into the wild.

Let me say this right away: I fully support the film’s central thesis that animals should not be kept in captivity or at the very least not paraded around for show (I will leave you your cats and dogs, for this is the internet) for their entire lives. This is an entirely honorable thing to make a film about, and The One and Only Ivan, to its credit, spends way more time exploring these desires within the characters (who are voiced by Danny DeVito, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, Helen Mirren, Angelina Jolie, and many others) than it does setting up complicated shenanigans that will eventually lead to setpieces that will eventually lead all the characters to realize things about five minutes before the end credits. The One and Only Ivan is a more thoughtful and measured talking-animal movie than the majority of its brethren, but it remains a talking-animal movie through-and-through.

It also stands to reason that, as a talking-animal movie, The One and Only Ivan is aimed at children. In the purest Disney tradition, the film doesn’t really dwell on pop cultural references, fart jokes and porcupines doing the Gangnam Style to put jokes across – the closest thing to one of those is an elaborate “why did the chicken cross the road” joke, which strikes me as both lovably wholesome and demonstrably dorky. The One and Only Ivan’s mix of heartfelt introspection and resolutely low-key shenanigans might catch the attention of smart, sensitive eight-year-olds who spend recess in the library (I should know, trust me), but it might be too little, too late for anyone else. ■

The One and Only Ivan is on DisneyPlus as of today, Friday, Aug. 21. Watch the trailer below:

The One and Only Ivan

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