The One and Only Ivan Paints an Easy Tenderness

Image courtesy of Disney

Enjoying an easy little movie like Disney’s The One and Only Ivan shouldn’t take qualifiers, but it does. Two in fact. The first is more black-and-white and depends on your trigger pressure about animals in captivity in this mindful post-Harambe and post-Blackfish world. If your personal pull weight is high enough to condone (over tolerate) and enjoy a circus or a zoo operation, you pass round one. If you consider those settings no better than inhumane minstrel shows, that will lose you here. The second qualifier gets more existential.

Do animals have feelings? Where you stand on this question is the true gateway to The One and Only Ivan. If you’re the kind of person where animals are just flesh and food, take your cynicism elsewhere. For everyone else, from common pet owners to good old boy farmers, the scientific studies and the mountain of formal and informal captured footage suggest the answer is a resounding yes. We may not know the full depth and we may over-associate our own feelings on the animals, but too much is there to deny. How do we know? Like those YouTube compilation challenges, just watch all the points of behavioral body language. Those aren’t tricks or imitations.

Based on the Newbery Award-winning children’s book written by K.A. Applegate and illustrated by Patricia Castelao, the focal point is Ivan, a silverback gorilla saved from poachers and adopted 27 years ago into a small-time circus housed in a failing shopping mall by its benevolent owner Mack (Bryan Cranston). Voiced by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, Ivan knows and values his role as the advertised headliner and roaring spectacle of faux ferocity.

His supporting show cast of animal buddies, including the senior elephant Stella (Angelina) and stray dog Bob (Danny DeVito), and Mac’s loyal zoo attendants, composed of the father-daughter team of George and Julia (Ramon Rodriguez and Ariana Greenblatt), know he’s a gentle giant through and through. Self-aware of his own stereotypes, Ivan wonders why audiences want an angry gorilla. To him, real anger is precious and reserved for protection.

Speaking of protection, Ivan comes to be a mentor for the nervous new baby elephant named Ruby (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince). Mack’s circus is struggling for steady audiences and Ruby becomes a fresh hit, causing a little envy in Ivan. Rather than stew, Ivan knows he can’t let everyone down. In striving for new material, so to speak, he finds an artist’s eye, first with a crayon. Even if it’s transferring things seen, it’s the patience and fine motor skills beyond the norm that achieve precise and discernible art. When crayons update to paint, Ivan draws upon remembered emancipation to color his inner hope loud and clear.

Feelings come from brains with enough development to exude intelligence. With intelligence comes the next leap into a capacity for creativity. The true story of The One and Only Ivan features a special individual that displays all three traits. Again, just watch him. While Disney injects its entertaining shorthand to apply name brand voices, assumed monologues, and CGI existences (way better than The Call of the Wild) into its titular lead and other showy critters, the phenomenon of emotional reality still comes through.

The impression The One and Only Ivan makes is one of easy tenderness. School of Rock writer Mike White and Me Before You director Thea Sharrock stick to an approachable and appropriate level of sentiment. The tagalong spirit of Greenblatt and the warmer side of Cranston’s vast range to act against invisible co-stars are welcome purveyors of that vibe in this villainless picture, one that is never over the top with its big top. In different hands (say someone like baroque hitmaker Tim Burton or even the Babe and Happy Feet vein of George Miller), this content would thrust to silly adventures and loud stages that wouldn’t suit it.

The most common advice when it comes to the acknowledgement of possessed emotions, be it a person or an animal, is the same universal command: Treat them with care. The movie portrays captivity as a situation, not a scourge, with freedom as a viable and encouraging goal. The One and Only Ivan nudges the viewer of the helpful care possible from humans for those animal neighbors in need. Not everything is a puppy mill or slaughterhouse and not every human is sadistic, especially in this evil-free film.

Take that heart and circle back to Lesson #1. Even if a movie like The One and Only Ivan applies a little extra pushed personification for audience appeal, still recognize the feelings present. They’re so very there. The movie can stand proud for doing its source inspiration justice in a softly affecting and entertaining way.

Dang. Could this review completely be overthinking some simple and even disposable Disney+ factory submission entertainment for the family couch? Maybe, but then we would miss the bonus boost of empathy that is at hand. If we’re pointing our compasses to brains here, something mindless would suggest something emotionless as well. Let’s not have that. Let’s have more of what The One and Only Ivan conveys.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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