Cert – PG/ Recommended for viewers aged 6+, Run-time – 1 hour 35 minutes, Director – Thea Sharrock
A gorilla (Sam Rockwell) who has spent almost his entire life working as part of a circus of animals discovers his talent for painting, and dream to escape.
It’s been said before that if the performances are good enough a film is lifted in quality, something which may very well be the case with The One And Only Ivan, the latest Disney+ feature, having skipped a cinematic release. This isn’t to say that the film itself would be bad otherwise, there’s certainly a fair deal in there to like, but the performances are very much what bring the viewer into the big top world of the film. Most are voice performances, bringing to life the CG animals that reside within a small circus enclosure within a shopping mall. Bryan Cranston leads them as the circus-master, introducing their small tricks; such as a ball-balancing seal (Mike White – who wrote the screenplay for the film, based on Katherine Applegate’s childrens book of the same name), a baseball playing chicken (Chaka Khan) and the standard balancing elephant (Angelina Jolie – who also served as a producer on the film). However, the star attraction of the show has always been Ivan (Sam Rockwell). While back in the day Ivan’s roar and might brought in crowds of ticket buyers now it seems as if the magic has gone from the smallest big top in the world, only filling a limited, and scattered, amount of seats.
Times are tough and the circus needs to find some way of coping or else there’s a risk that it’ll go bust, meaning that Cranston’s Mack will be separated from Ivan – who he has effectively brought up, Ivan having spent almost his entire life with humans – and the other animals. And so, in comes a new star attraction, baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). Of course it’s at this point that themes of jealousy begin to be introduced within Ivan. He was the headline act and now his time in the spotlight is being reduced with each performance, the applause no longer his. It almost seems as if this could be Toy Story with animals, however screenwriter White and director Thea Sharrock manage to avoid this by slightly changing some strings. The film begins to look into Ivan’s other relationships and talents, his past. When handed some old crayons and paper by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of another employee at the circus, Ivan discovers his talent for drawing. While those around him don’t initially recognise what his doodles are, particularly his best friend; stray dog Bob (Danny DeVito – arguably the highlight of the film – bringing in a number of chuckles throughout), Julia does, and with this a wave of inspiration comes to both him and the circus.
Ivan’s past is delved into, and while there aren’t a great deal of flashbacks what is revealed is his desire to escape. To be free in the wild, and to bring all the other animals with him – each with only some mild personality trait due to a relative lack of screen-time. It’s around this point, and particularly around the second half of the film, that things begin to get somewhat formulaic. As this becomes a more prominent point it almost seems as if one or two short ideas are tacked on to properly ensure that the film is of feature length and crosses the 90 minute mark. Yet, even if this is the case there’s no denying that the film is watchable. There’s an appeal to it, to the characters, that brings you in and you do find yourself engaged and interested. Maybe it’s the humour. Perhaps it’s the lightness that it holds, and the feeling of something close to a traditional, almost stripped back, Disney film that it emits. Whatever it does it works, and a fair deal of these feelings could all be brought back to the performances. Performances that just welcome you in and simply allow you to be drawn to the characters, understand them and have a relatively relaxed 95 minutes with them.
This certainly isn’t anything new and revolutionary, although in some aspects it is a nice change from Disney, not just in the way that the CG animals actually have emotion in their faces. But, it is nice to see something like this from the studio, something calmer and more traditional. The air to it is inviting and welcoming and you’re able to simply sit there and drift off into the ‘wild’ – although far from chaotic – big top world of the one and only Ivan. One that, perhaps much like the circus itself, will likely delight the kids and also provide something of interest and definitely a step or two above just plain amusement for the adults.
It might seem formulaic at times but the performances from the starry cast of The One And Only Ivan are enough to bring you in for a finely stripped-back, relaxed and well-handled tale straight from the vein that we know as Disney.