The One and Only Ivan (2020)

It's never too late to discover who you are.

Ivan is a 400-pound silverback gorilla who shares a communal habitat in a suburban shopping mall with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog, and various other animals. He has few memories of the jungle where he was captured, but when a baby elephant named Ruby arrives, it touches something deep within him. Ruby is recently separated from her family in the wild, which causes him to question his life, where he comes from and where he ultimately wants to be.

Artemis Fowl was the first film exclusively released on Disney+ that I put my eyes on, and it will undoubtedly end up as one of the worst movies of 2020. From that moment on, I couldn't help but feel a bit skeptical about Disney deciding to place films initially intended for a theatrical release in their streaming service, which is the case of The One and Only Ivan. The thought "did they release it digitally because it's awful like the other one?" couldn't leave my mind, so I watched it with moderately low expectations…
Fortunately, this flick is one of the sweetest surprises of this year. I didn't expect to shed tears in such a generic tale, but I did. The story follows a familiar formula from the studio but with a few twists. The protagonist is the star of a declining show when someone new comes in to save the whole thing, making the protagonist jealous. However, this time, the protagonist doesn't try to sabotage anyone to be the main attraction again. Ivan becomes very close to Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) and really wants to fulfill a heartfelt promise that he makes to Stella: to set everyone free.
Mike White (who co-wrote one of the worst movies of all-time, The Emoji Movie) was also a reason for my low confidence levels, but I can now forgive him for being part of that other animated atrocity. White gives every single character a defining personality or at least a specific trait unique to that animal. Even side characters with no real impact in the story, like Henrietta (Chaka Khan), Murphy (Ron Funches), or Frankie (White himself), are clearly stuck in my memory due to their hilarious bits (I never imagined I would laugh to a "why did the chicken cross the road?" joke ever again).
Ivan, Ruby, Stella, and Bob (Danny DeVito) are undoubtedly the standouts. All are characters so easy to fall in love with. Ivan works beautifully as a protagonist whose backstory is as tragic as one can imagine. His arc is incredibly compelling and emotionally powerful, so much that it still ends partially sad. His relationship with Ruby feels authentic and heartfelt, just like with Stella. Bob is definitely the funniest of them all, but even he has a story of abandonment and isolation. Every wild animal deserves freedom, and every domestic animal deserves a family home. That's a message I'll always stand by and fight for as an animal lover.
The highest praise I can offer this film is that it feels surprisingly immersive, even when watching at home. When Ivan talked, I never thought "that's Sam Rockwell!". I always looked and heard Ivan as Ivan, same with every other character. The animals look impressively realistic, but movie magic reached a point where I can't even tell the difference between a real animal and a fake one sometimes. It's not really the case of The One and Only Ivan, but after The Lion King, something like the former doesn't really surprise me anymore. Still, it just goes to show how storytelling can be the headliner. I was so enthralled by the narrative that I couldn't care less about the visually stunning animals nor the excellent voice acting. I just wanted to see the animals be set free.
Finally, two more impactful aspects that made the film better for me. Craig Armstrong's score is exceptionally prone to chills and tears. It's subtle when it needs to be, and powerfully moving when the big moments arrive. One of my favorite scores of 2020. The last detail has to do with the movie's inception. Don't ask me why, but I missed the "inspired by a true story" at the opening credits. As usual in this type of films, right after these end, text accompanies photos and clips, in this case, of the real-life Ivan. In an otherwise generic movie, I was emotionally shocked once I saw those real images. I finish the film with tears of happiness, but I have to leave a disclaimer.
When it comes to negatives, this is one of those movies where I can't really point out straight-up flaws or technical issues. My only nitpick is that I'd have loved to see more development regarding Ivan and Mack's (Bryan Cranston) supposedly strong bond that they share as a family. It doesn't detract from the touching moments between the two, but it could have made those sequences much more impactful. It's simply a fun, entertaining, fast-paced, one-hour-and-a-half flick that works for both adults and children. However, even though there's no visible violence or animal abuse, some of the animal characters share their sorrowful, traumatic past, which can be a tad too dark for really young kids…
The One and Only Ivan is one of the most loving surprises of 2020. Boasting an impeccable cast and one of my favorite scores of the year, this adaptation of Ivan's true story might follow a (slightly changed) generic formula, but it's undoubtedly an emotional journey worthy of everyone's attention, both adults and children. Mike White delivers a heartfelt screenplay, packed with memorable animal characters easy to connect with, even for viewers who aren't animal lovers. A beautiful story filled with meaningful messages and tear-inducing moments, executed so brilliantly that it became one of my most immersive home viewings of the last few years. Visually, I can't point out a single issue, the animals look incredible. If I needed an argument to convince friends and family to subscribe to Disney+, this is the movie I'd show them…
Rating: A-

Allison Shearmur Productions, Digital Makeup Group, Jolie Pas Productions, Walt Disney Pictures by Thea Sharrock, Mike White, Katherine Applegate.
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Phillipa Soo, Chaka Khan.

Genres: Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy

Keywords: circus gorilla based on novel or book based on a true story talking animals


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