‘The One and Only Ivan’ Review — A Little (for Disney) Movie That Stirs Big Emotions

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The One and Only Ivan Review

Disney’s adaptation of K.A. Applegate’s novel The One and Only Ivan was slated for a theatrical release this August before the coronavirus pandemic ruined everyone’s plans for 2020, be they an average Joe or a multi-national mega-corporation. Luckily for Disney, they have a nascent streaming service that is desperate for new content and so The One and Only Ivan finds its way on to Disney+. Loosely inspired by a true story, The One and Only Ivan isn’t a particularly original tale featuring talking animals with celebrity voices, but what the film lacks in originality it more than makes up for in effectiveness. Director Thea Sharrock’s film is open about its desire to tug on the heartstrings and tug on them it certainly does.

At the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is a silverback gorilla who has spent most of his life living in the indoor shopping center that also features its own little circus. Mack (Bryan Cranston) is the owner of the fledgling mall and also the ringmaster for his miniature circus. Ivan has spent most of his life being the centerpiece for Mack’s mall-based circus, which also features the aging elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), a baseball-hitting chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), a firetruck-driving rabbit Murphy (Ron Funches), a wise-cracking parrot Thelma (Phillipa Soo), and a ball-bouncing seal Frankie (Mike White). Though not a part of the circus, the stray dog Bob (Danny DeVito) spends most of his nights curled up beside Ivan who is also his best friend. Mack hopes to inject some new life into his struggling business by acquiring a young elephant Ruby (Brooklyn Prince).

Working alongside Mack at the mall is George (Ramon Rodriguez) who often brings his daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) to play alongside the animals. Julia provides Ivan with a set of crayons, and soon the big gorilla finds himself tapping into his artistic potential. At the same time, though, Stella’s advancing age has her confronting her own mortality, leaving her to plead with Ivan to look after the younger Ruby. As Ivan becomes a guardian for Ruby, the gorilla’s art creates a bit of a stir and the struggling circus starts to garner some more attention. This will lead the set of animals on a unique path towards finding their freedom.

The One and Only Ivan attempts to toe a precarious line in that it’s explicit in expressing its opposition to keeping an array of wild animals encased in a shopping mall but refuses to paint Cranston’s Mack as anything more than well-intentioned but misguided circus owner. Where Sharrock’s film does confront a particular issue with moral clarity it is by no means an activist work, opting to focus more intently on the emotional components of a special gorilla in search of his place in the world.

Veteran screenwriter Mike White does his best to keep the story moving forward even as it’s a film without an antagonist. The One and Only Ivan may be a movie with a considerable budget to bring its animated animals to life but the heart and soul of the film comes from little moments, the connection between these animals friends and the little gestures that generate big emotions. As there’s little in the plot that will throw you for a loop, it’s the focus on the power of friendship that gives the film its heart and its earnest expression of these themes will have even the most harden cynic tearing up.

Running at just a hair over 90 minutes, The One and Only Ivan achieves its modest aims in the Disney tradition. It’s a movie that will entertain children of all ages while ensuring that parents watching will have to wipe away some tears. The One and Only Ivan isn’t a production that’s on the scale of most Disney releases these days. It’s not a franchise starter. It’s not a blockbuster. But The One and Only Ivan shows that Disney is still capable of making little movies that deliver big emotions.

The One and Only Ivan
  • Overall Score


A rather small, modest production by Disney standards, The One and Only Ivan delivers a film sure to entertain children of all ages while delivering some heartfelt moments of big emotion.

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