‘The One and Only Ivan’ a cute, if not singular, family flick

I’ll be honest, I only watched this movie because we’ve been trapped in our dorms for two weeks.

That being said, I could have done a lot worse with 90 minutes than “The One and Only Ivan,” the newest addition to the Disney+ catalog and the latest film to forego a theatrical release. I feel like everything I write these days is about that pesky coronavirus, but hey, it’s exploding the industry before our very eyes.

This explosion includes Disney+. “The One and Only Ivan” isn’t the first Disney film to be pulled from theaters and plopped on the platform. That would be “Artemis Fowl,” which didn’t set the bar so much as it dropped the bar on the ground and proceeded to pummel it into the Earth. And later this week, the live-action “Mulan” will hit the streaming service for a whopping 30 bucks. How bored do they think we are? (Very.)

But “The One and Only Ivan” feels at home on Disney+. Despite its release date shuffle, the film plays like a Disney+ Original: an expensive one, to be sure, but a movie made for streaming nonetheless. And I don’t even mean that as a bad thing. I think that if you’re looking for something light, but not totally toothless — a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down — then “The One and Only Ivan” is pleasant enough. But is “enough” enough?

Based on the Newbery-winning children’s novel, which itself was inspired by a true story, “The One and Only Ivan” is about a gorilla named, well, you know. Voiced by Sam Rockwell, he’s a mighty silverback and the center of the show. Literally — Ivan is the headliner of a miniature circus run out of a dying strip mall beside the interstate. He’s not alone: with him are Stella, an elephant (voice of Angelina Jolie), Frankie, a seal (voice of screenwriter Mike White) and Bob, a stray dog brought to life by the humble, handsome, Mr. Danny DeVito. Could it really have been inspired by a true story if it’s a talking animal movie?

But that’s not at all; Ivan can paint. “A gorilla that paints?!” exclaims the ringmaster (Bryan Cranston, hamming it up). “The circus is saved!” But this crucial plot point isn’t fully realized until nearly two thirds of the way through the film, and by then the theme that accompanies it — “the power of visualization,” as Disney+ says — is swallowed up whole by a competing anti-captivity message. In that regard, at least, the film works in surprising subtleties; it’s not that Bryan Cranston treats his animals poorly, it’s that he doesn’t treat them right. For a children’s film, that nuance is appreciated.

The voice work is also solid. Sam Rockwell, being Sam Rockwell, does Ivan justice, lending the gorilla a gentle touch that’s crucial to his character. It doesn’t hurt that Ivan is brought to life with shockingly realistic VFX. Danny DeVito, meanwhile, is a scene stealer, and Brooklynn Prince of “The Florida Project” knocks it out of the park as a baby elephant. But Angelina Jolie as the elder elephant is phoning it in to a pathetic degree, while the rest of the cast is sadly sidelined.

Director Thea Sharrock, a veteran of British theatre who made her transition to film with “Me Before You,” does a fine job, but that’s about all there is to say. Same goes for the script; it’s fine. Fine kills a Sunday afternoon; fine makes for good background noise while you’re doing your chores. Is “fine” fine? Listen, I’ll take what new movies I can get. 6/10

This review was originally published on August 31, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.


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