So, I’ve been quiet recently, as it turns out that moving city is quite time-consuming, who knew? Anyway, I haven’t had time to get to the cinema in the past few weeks, so I haven’t reviewed anything. But, between packing and shifting boxes, I got a chance to watch the latest Disney+ original film, The One and Only Ivan.
You tend to get a free pass if you have animals in your movie (unless you’re Dolittle) especially if said animal is your main character, your human actors become almost background set-dressing to the cute animals and their antics, even if said animals were created on a computer like they appear to be here.
So, what is this film about then? Well, it sees the titular Ivan the gorilla (voiced by Sam Rockwell) ad his gang of misfit circus animals try and turn around the fortunes of their once-successful show, with the human ringleader Mack (Bryan Cranston) hoping his new acquisition of a baby elephant will be enough to draw crowds back.
Like most films with animals in principal roles, this film is going directly for the heartstrings. Unlike several other films which save its touching events for the climax of the film, this movie sprinkles them in throughout the runtime, managing to pull together a few different moments that will attempt to warm the cockles of your heart.
There’s a nice focus on the relationship between Mack and his animals, which I would say is very nicely fleshed-out and doesn’t ever boil down to simple ‘human = bad’ cliche you see in such stories as this. There’s a lot of warmth shared between human and animal, with Mack even shown to have raised Ivan since he was a young gorilla.
Despite this, there is a conflict between man and creature, and the typical narrative device of animals wanting their freedom is wheeled out about a third of the way into the film, despite the animals seeming quite content in their surroundings up to that point; it is only after a particularly upsetting event in the story of the film that the tide begins to shift, and cracks begin to appear.
This is then used to add further complexity to Mack’s relationship with his furry friends, as he grows impatient and worried about the future of his show. Despite this though, you never get the feeling that he doesn’t care for the animals, just that he may not have their best interests at heart, even if he doesn’t realise it.
Truth be told, this year has been pretty rough for animals in films; what with Dolittle and its bewildering cast of animals and humans, The Call of the Wild and its ‘ruff’ CGI (get it? I’m a comedy genius), and lets not even talk about Cats, but in a year when animals have seemed to signify that it’s best to turn and run away from a film, The One and Only Ivan actually gets certain things right and hits all the necessary story beats to leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling by the end.
The animals appear to be CGI, as opposed to having actual animals on set (although it might be a mixture of both, I’m not sure) and for what its worth, they look fine. Not amazing, especially considering who made the film and the resources they have to hand, but the animals look believable, and what’s more, actually look like they’re there for the most part, as opposed to added in post-production.
The relationships between the animals goes a long way to building a feeling of community between the rag-tag collection of species assembled in this run-down show. Each animal has their own personality traits and friendships, and it goes a long way to making these animals feel like characters as opposed to set dressing.
The characters are engaging enough too. Sure, it’s hardly groundbreaking in the story department, we’ve seen this kind of story played out several times before, but the heart of the film is in the right place. There’s no over-arching antagonist, it’s just the story of a struggling showman trying to keep the crowds entertained with a show he’s done for years, and unusually he’s a caring owner for the animals, as opposed to the snarling circus masters with whips we’ve grown used to over the years.
The animal voices are hit-and-miss though, in my opinion. Sam Rockwell does a fine job as Ivan, conveying several emotional changes over the course of the story, and Brooklynn Prince does a great job as Ruby, the baby elephant brought in to bolster the crowds, but some of the other voice actors really do sounds like they were phoning in their performances. As much as I love Danny DeVito, his performance here as Bob the stray dog was uninspiring and lacked the life and verve he usually brings to a project, similar things can also be said of Helen Mirren, who sounds like she’s simply going through the motions.
Like many films purporting to be ‘based on a true story’ you get the feeling that more than a few liberties have been taken with the truth, but it doesn’t get in the way of your enjoyment of a bright, and ultimately fulfilling story.
On the whole, The One and Only Ivan is nothing new, it’s a collection of story beats and archetypes we’ve seen a million times before, but it still manages to keep a steady pace, and reliably hits the heartstrings with its engaging characters, both human and animal, to provide an enjoyable enough watch. It’s hardly one that will stick in the mind, but as a way to kill a few hours, you could do much worse.