Movies featuring talking animals come in all shapes and sizes: the typical “dog is man’s best friend” movie, the “kid and his trusty pet” movie, the “dog is great at basketball and other sports” movie, and of course, the rapping chipmunk movies. “The One and Only Ivan,” directed by Thea Sharrock and based on Katherine Applegate’s children’s book, is what one might call a gorilla movie, even if it boasts a menagerie of furry friends.
The star of “The One and Only Ivan” is Ivan (Sam Rockwell), a gorilla who lives at the Big Top Mall. Along with his other animal friends, including maternal elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), mangy dog Bob (Danny DeVito), and pompous poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), they perform for dwindling audiences alongside circus owner Mack (Brian Cranston). Ivan is the headliner; he finishes off every performance with a roar and chest bump. But the arrival of Ruby (Brooklyn Prince), a baby elephant whom Mack is depending on to turn things around, forces Ivan to rethink his King Kong-like act—he’s really into painting, cuddling, and listening to bedtime stories. You know, stuff gorillas aren’t supposed to like.
In other hands, this film might not be worth your time. It’s got a litter of poop jokes and isn’t shy about manipulating your emotions. But this is Disney we’re talking about, and Sharrock adapts the material into a fun and surprising and edifying romp, rife with positive messages, wacky jokes, and CGI animals that look, believe it or not, like real animals.
The VFX team, known for their work on “Maleficent” and the most recent “Lion King,” bring Ivan’s movements to life. The computer-generated creation has the weight, heat, feel of a real gorilla, though some of the facial expressions awkwardly resemble that of a human. Fortunately, Ivan plays opposite several humans who can hold up their end of the table. After every show, Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) draws Ivan pictures, while her dad George (Ramon Rodrigez) cleans out the cages. She offers Ivan crayons, paper, and watercolors, and he starts to draw bugs, grass, and nature. It’s an adorable scene and subtly outlines where Ivan’s story is headed.
Writer Mike White has streamlined “The One and Only Ivan” into something simple and accessible, while also sprinkling in facets of E.B. White novels and the Disney male archetype. Ivan is a lot like Ralph, Woody and Mr. Incredible, a character who has been typecast as a tough guy by his peers, when really he’s sensitive and harmless. Stella makes him promise to take Ruby to the wild, which gives him the chance to do what Ralph did in “Wreck-it Ralph”— to break down the walls of stereotype; to show his friends what a fun, loving leader he can be.
What you’re left with is a story that says “animals have feelings too,” which is hard to argue with. Ivan is the hero of the story, staging prison breaks, parenting Ruby, and, ultimately doing all he can to show Mack he wants to be free. His efforts build to a third act that combines magical realism with world-weary wisdom, slipping messages on aging, forgiveness, and self-worth into ethereal kiddie fare. The movie, like the book, is based on a gorilla who spent 27 years at a mall before an outcry (prompted by National Geographic) won his release to a zoo. But Sharrock saves the real-life stuff for the end, keeping things as light as they should be.
“The One and Only Ivan” knows what families and animal lovers crave, and the uplifting, soul-stirring finale demonstrates this perfectly, not to mention the images of the real-life Ivan that play over the credits. We want to watch talking animals that can be cute while having something to say. Ivan—the movie and the gorilla—delivers that with a roar. [B]
“The One and Only Ivan” is now available on Disney+.