Review: ‘The One and Only Ivan,’ the quarantine analogy we’ve dreamed about


For years, Disney has been at the forefront of computer-generated talking animals movie technology. Sometimes it’s a hit (“The Jungle Book”) and sometimes it’s a real miss (“The Lion King”). But “The One and Only Ivan” finds a sweet spot, beautifully establishing characters with plausible emotion that propels this primarily character-driven piece.

“The One and Only Ivan” is based on the book by Katherine Applegate, about Ivan, a real gorilla born in 1962, that was captured by poachers in Africa as a baby and brought to live with humans in the United States. At 3 and fully grown, the family placed him in a Washington state mall attraction, where he remained for 27 years, until the public called for his release to a zoo. The film, written by the prolific screenwriter (and excellent “Survivor” contestant) Mike White, directed by Thea Sharrock, gives Ivan, and his furry friends, a voice.

Sam Rockwell provides the voice of Ivan, who seems resigned to his life at the mall, with his owner/master/circus ringleader Mack (Bryan Cranston), his buddy, a stray mutt named Bob (Danny DeVito), and his wise old elephant pal Stella (Angelina Jolie). Ivan is satisfied to be the main attraction, roaring for the delight of audiences, though his spirit is more sensitive, intuitive and artistic. Gifted some old crayons by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the plucky young daughter of Mack’s employee George (Ramon Rodriguez), Ivan scribbles impressionistic portraits of bugs and objects. But there’s an undeniable melancholy in Ivan’s demeanor, and in Rockwell’s performance.


That pathos is piqued when Mack, strapped for cash and looking to make the mall circus the hottest ticket in town, brings in some fresh talent: an adorable baby elephant, Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). Ruby is fascinated by stories of “the wild,” and Stella makes Ivan promise he’ll take Ruby out of this dusty old mall basement and into the natural environment where she belongs.

Thus, the adaptation gives the animals agency. They aren’t sitting around waiting for a letter-writing campaign, but staging their own dramatic escapes, passing off crayon messages to Julia and, ultimately expressing their heart’s desire any way they can. The story itself isn’t all that different than the standard Disney film fare, but it’s the underlying true tale that offers stakes and emotion, as well as the vocal performances from Rockwell, Prince, DeVito and Jolie.

What stands out about “The One and Only Ivan” is just how amazingly rendered the computer-generated animal performances are. It’s not just the photorealistic visuals, but the animators have landed on a performance style that blends both animal and human expression. Every animal moves and “speaks” with motions expected of their species, but there’s recognizable human emotion conveyed visually as well as vocally. It certainly helps that an expressive primate carries the majority of the emotional weight, as well as a cute, doe-eyed baby elephant (there are a few moments right out of “Dumbo” that will pull the heartstrings).

Sharrock’s directing is unshowy, focused on the characters and performance moments that make this film a simple, yet effectively moving story about dreaming of a life beyond the walls, something we can all appreciate at this particular moment.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘The One and Only Ivan'

Rated: PG, for mild thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

Playing: Available Aug. 21 on Disney+