Synopsis: Gorilla living at a mall circus contemplates the outside world.
Ready for a tear-jerking, ultimately uplifting movie full of beautiful and sympathetic animals? Well, CGI animals. Yeah, I wasn’t sure about it either, but Disney has a strong pull. And if you have kids, Disney is nearly unavoidable. Fortunately, their tech artists are giving audiences increasingly realistic-looking animals with sympathetic posturing and facial expressions. And since Hollywood has a dismal record of inhumane treatment to animal “actors,” the shift is good news.
The One and Only Ivan (streaming on Disney+) is based on the Newberry Medal winning book by Katherine Applegate which is loosely based on a true story (more on that later). The movie stars Ivan, an adult male gorilla who lives and works at the Big Top Mall Circus. There is an assortment of other animals that also perform, including a seal and an elephant. During the daily shows, it’s Ivan’s job to appear on a balcony and act fierce, roaring and pounding his chest for the audience. Otherwise, he lives backstage in a roomy cage furnished with a hammock and tv, alongside the other animal performers.
Not surprisingly, kids will love the animals while Disney attempts to pique adults’ interest with the voice talent. As everyone on Earth knows, Mickey is rolling in money, so expect A-level talent. Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell is Ivan the gorilla, Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is Stella the elephant and Oscar-winner Helen Mirren is Snickers the poodle. Rounding out the cast are Not-an-Oscar-winner Danny Devito as Bob the stray dog and Not-an-Oscar-winner Bryan Cranston as Mack, the circus owner and ringmaster. DeVito doesn’t ham it up too much and Cranston gives it his all as a misguided man trying to keep his business going. His character is rather one-dimensional, as are the supporting cast of real-life, not-CGI humans: a couple of employees and the animal lover kid of one of them.
The Big Top Mall is on its last legs and Mack is always looking for new acts/animals to boost attendance. Ivan sees Mack as his friend and wants to help, so he brainstorms ideas with his little mixed breed dog friend, Bob, who hangs around for shelter and to swipe some kibble from the glamorous white standard poodle, Snickers. Dame Helen’s Snickers has a quick convo with Bob that probably required all of twenty minutes for her to sweep in, record Snickers’ lines and collect payment.
Ivan tells Bob that he is the silverback of their ad hoc troop and he should be able to guide and protect them. But raising capital and coming up with business plans isn’t exactly in his wheelhouse. Understandably. As the movie goes along, his ideas about circus life change and thoughts of freedom arise.
Mike White (School of Rock) wrote the screenplay, and he hits his marks for humor. The screenplay also manages some suspense while speaking to both kids and adults about humans’ exploitation of wild animals and their need to live in Nature. What does caring about animals really mean?
Case in point: Mack. What kind of selfish jerk buys a baby gorilla as a pet, then has him live in a big cage and work for his keep? Mack! He’s not cruel to the animals, but they live indoors in very limited space while he makes a living off of them.
Mack’s latest idea to drum up business is to purchase a baby elephant and put her to work. Ruby is cute as a button– and more realistic-looking than CGI Dumbo, who was also still cute. (Brooklyn Prince, excellent in The Florida Project, conveys Ruby’s sweet innocence.) Ruby arrives to much excitement and the shy baby ellie is quickly mothered by the adult elephant, Stella. Even kids will probably wonder: But where is Ruby’s mom? That’s right Mack. Where is Ruby’s mom? Mack gleefully announces to his employees that he got a good price on her from a circus that went under. What a guy.
The baby ellie draws the crowds when she steps into the ring with Stella. At night she shares floor space with her new surrogate mom who tells her stories of what she remembers of living in the wild before she was captured. Ivan’s cage is next to the elephants’ space and he listens soberly to the stories. Curious Ruby asks Ivan what he remembers of his family in the wild. He says he doesn’t remember. (Repressed memories anyone?) He does remember that he lived at Mack’s house until he got too big and strong.
Among the animals, Ivan is especially relatable, expressing an easy-to-read kinship in his thoughtful expressions. Ivan’s world is limited, but he begins thinking more and more about what it would feel like to be free, living in the wild. Meanwhile Stella has developed a limp, so Mack is attempting to teach little Ruby tricks for a stand alone act. She gets confused and Mack gets frustrated. Dammit Mack! She’s just a baby! Ivan doesn’t like what he sees either.
One day, the elementary school aged daughter of an employee gives Ivan some paper and crayons to pass the time. He starts small, drawing beetles and carrots. I was hoping he’d draw a picture of him kicking Mack’s butt and show it to him next time he hounded little Ruby about mastering some trick.
Now Mack isn’t exactly a villain, but he is doing wrong by the animals. Making them responsible for their upkeep when they never should have been captured in the first place. Maybe Mack will consider re-homing them to a reputable zoo? Nope! Because Mack takes note of Ivan’s drawings and gets a new idea. Now Ivan will be marketed as an artist ape. Ok, maybe Mack is a villain.
But Ivan has other ideas: about freedom and his responsibilities as a silverback. Stella the elephant has told him that there are outdoor places where animals can roam, places “Where humans make amends.” Don’t resist the tears! You can’t, not the way Angelina Jolie tenderly delivers her lines.
Ivan starts to plan a getaway for all of them…from the top of the cage, through the building’s window, he can see trees in the distance… Suspenseful!
And get ready to have your heart broken when Ivan remembers his babyhood, in the wild with his family, until… Grab the tissues, more tears will flow. Now, if you are a cynic, you’ll think I’m being sarcastic, but the movie really makes you sad for the animals; knowing what people have taken from them.
The end of the movie will make you cry too. But they’ll be happy tears for Ivan and his friends. And stupid Mack might even get a clue and realize that a circus is no place for wild animals.
The story of the real Ivan is remarkable. He was captured from the wild as an infant, surviving the trauma of adult troop members killed to kidnap the babies for sale and then a harrowing multi-week journey to America. He lived the next few years of his life at the home of the owners of a mall pet shop. When he got too strong to handle, he was moved to the B&I Mall, used as an attraction and housed in a 14′ x 14′ cage. The mall patrons could see him through plexiglass. He lived like this for twenty-seven years. After years of people observing his depressed state, protesters advocated for his owner to release Ivan to a reputable zoo and raised funds to compensate the owner. Eventually, the owner gave him to the care of Zoo Atlanta. To read about Ivan’s recovery and see photos of him at his new home, click here.