The One and Only Ivan isn’t Disney’s best, but it’s still a sweet film

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and Bryan Cranston in Disney’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, based on the award-winning book by Katherine Applegate and directed by Thea Sharrock. Photo Courtesy Disney. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and Bryan Cranston in Disney’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, based on the award-winning book by Katherine Applegate and directed by Thea Sharrock. Photo Courtesy Disney. © 2020 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved /

The One and Only Ivan isn’t Disney at its most magical, but strong source material and a high-profile cast make it worth the watch.

Although initially it was headed for a big-screen release, The One and Only Ivan was one of the many casualties of coronavirus. Instead of arriving in now-reopened theaters, the film hit Disney+ this weekend. The fact that Disney didn’t hide it behind a paywall (like they’re doing for Mulan) made us initially skeptical of just how good of a movie it would be, but we’re happy to report that The One and Only Ivan exceeded our (admittedly low) expectations.

Based on the children’s novel by Katherine Applegate, which in turn was based on a true story, The One and Only Ivan tells the tale of Ivan (Sam Rockwell), a silverback gorilla stuck in a circus in a Washington mall who discovers the miraculous ability to paint. After bonding with Ruby, the new baby elephant in the circus, Ivan uses his amazing ability to try and earn their freedom.

We want to make this clear: The One and Only Ivan is by no means Disney’s best. We wouldn’t even put it in the top 10 live-action films they’ve released. The cinematography and direction are incredibly uninventive and flat, and although it’s provided the opportunity, the film has very little to say about some major topics it could’ve broached. But then again, this is Disney we’re talking about here, so it may have been a little much to hope they’d take a stance on any remotely controversial topic.

However, despite its refusal to engage in any significant discourse about the treatment of animals being held in captivity (both for entertainment purposes and in zoos/conservation facilities), as well as the fairly flat filmmaking, The One and Only Ivan still has enough magic in it to make us tear up a few times.

The film has two very obvious and significant strengths which, when working in tandem, are enough to overshadow its flaws (or rather, its lack of substance): strong source material and an impressive cast. We remember reading The One and Only Ivan when we were young, and the story itself translates incredibly well to the big screen. Unlike some other literary adaptations, the film doesn’t struggle with pacing, nor does it cram or cut too much of the novel’s story. It’s a well-suited choice for a film’s runtime, and more than that, it’s an engaging story.

Ivan is easy to root for, as are the rest of the circus’ menagerie of animals, although we could’ve used a little more development for the supporting cast. Other than Ivan himself, not even the bigger players like Ruby, Mack, or Julia have much substance to them. Despite their fairly shallow characterization, though, the bones are strong, and the performances are more than good enough to make us forget about just how little most of the characters are fleshed out.

Sam Rockwell is serviceable as Ivan — although when voice-acting a computer-generated animal (much like with the live-action remake of The Lion King), there’s only so much an actor can bring to the table. Of the animated creatures, the strongest performer is also the youngest: Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) is effortlessly charming and easy to love as baby elephant Ruby. Angelina Jolie also gives a strong performance as the aging elephant, Stella, but doesn’t have enough screen time to truly make a lasting impression.

On the human side of things, the obvious star of the show is Bryan Cranston as Mack, the circus’ owner. Although Mack himself is a bit of a dubiously written character (at times we’re not sure if we’re supposed to root for him or against him), that’s no fault of Cranston’s, who gives a strong showing and brings quite a bit of the film’s pathos. Again, his character could’ve used a little more development (we would have loved to seen more of his and Ivan’s relationship aside from pure backstory), but he isn’t a bad lead by any means.

In the end, while The One and Only Ivan won’t enter the upper echelon of Disney films, it’s a solid showing that lands all the right moments and is made all the better by its impressive cast and strong source material.

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Have you seen The One and Only Ivan? What’s your favorite movie based on a book? Sound off in the comments below.