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Disney+ Review: The One and Only Ivan

April 19, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

2021 Academy Award nominee for Best Visual Effects

One of the best things that has happened with advancements in visual effects is that real animals no longer need to be used on screen. From the tiger in Life of Pi, to the apes in the modern Planet of the Apes trilogy, human actors are now able to share the screen with photorealistic computer generated animals, without any harm coming to actual living creatures.

The latest example of this is the Disney+ film The One and Only Ivan, which builds upon the stunningly realistic visual effects in the studio’s remakes of The Jungle Book and The Lion King, to allow its cast of talking CGI animals to seamlessly interact with human actors. The fact that the film received an Oscar nomination for its visual effects is not surprising, and after watching it, I can say that the honour is richly deserved.

Based on the children’s novel of the same name by Katherine Applegate, The One and Only Ivan tells the story of Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a silverback gorilla who lives in a shopping mall. Ivan is the headliner in a circus act put on by a ringmaster named Mack (Bryan Cranston), whose show includes a collection of animals performing tricks, including a wise older elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie, also serving as producer), who acts as a sort of mentor to Ivan.

The show is bleeding money, so Mack tries to revive it by bringing in a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), whose curiosity about the wild causes Ivan to reflect upon his own upbringing. Ivan also forms a friendship with a human child named Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), who is the daughter of the mall’s janitor (Ramón Rodríguez). When Julia gives him crayons and finger paints, Ivan starts drawing pictures that show his desire to be back in the wild.

Directed by Thea Sharrock, The One and Only Ivan becomes surprisingly emotional in how it observes the plight of circus animals yearning for freedom. This is a film about the inhumanity of keeping animals in cages, and it doesn’t shy away from exploring these themes in a way that younger audience members can understand. The film’s biggest strength lies in how it candidly addresses the deeper philosophical question of whether or not animals should be kept in captivity, and Sharrock stages some very touching scenes as Ivan comes to terms with his past. The director also impressively avoids turning Mack into a cartoonish villain, presenting him instead in a more complicated and nuanced way.

It’s especially fitting that CGI has been used to tell this story, since the film itself is very critical of using animals for entertainment. Brought to life through a mix of motion capture and visual effects, Ivan is not only impressively realistic, but incredibly expressive as well, especially his deep brown eyes. The visual effects artists have nailed the balance between anthropomorphism and photorealism, and from the moment Ivan first addresses the camera in the opening scene, I was captivated by the character.

The cast of animal characters also includes Mack’s pampered poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), and a stray dog named Bob (Danny DeVito), who sneaks into Ivan’s enclosure to sleep. The other circus animals include a baseball playing chicken named Henrietta (Chaka Khan); a bunny named Murphy (Ron Funches) who drives a toy firetruck; a macaw named Thelma (Phillipa Soo); and a neurotic seal named Frankie (Mike White, who also wrote the film’s adapted screenplay). Despite the fact that they are able to talk, these entirely CG animals have all been brought to screen in a believable way.

There are some very moving moments between the animals as they discuss what it means to be free, which makes the film’s bittersweet, feel-good finale all the more resonant. There are a few moments of humour geared more towards kids, and a mid-credits scene that feels a bit tacked on. But, altogether, The One and Only Ivan left me pleasantly surprised with how good it was, especially as a mainstream live action family movie about talking animals. I found the story to be surprisingly engaging, and the message genuinely touching.

The One and Only Ivan is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

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