This past August, The One and Only Ivan, was released on the streaming platform, Disney Plus. An adaption of the novel by the same title, the movie follows the character of Ivan, a silverback gorilla. He lives at the Big Top Mall, where he and his friends have to perform tricks in order to make money for the ringleader, Mack. After Mack brings a baby elephant named Ruby to the mall in order to attract more people, Ivan is faced with the task of bringing Ruby and the other animals to the wild where they belong.
I hadn’t seen any promotional material before seeing the movie, but having read the book when I was younger, I was initially worried that the movie wouldn’t be a fair adaptation of the story. Similarly, after Disney rebooted The Lion King, I was concerned that The One and Only Ivan would make the same mistake of prioritizing how photorealistic the animals look over how expressive they were. That worrying feeling went away after watching for a few minutes, but I still needed some time to adjust.
The movie opens with a close-up shot of Ivan breaking the fourth wall and introducing himself, and while Ivan looks photorealistic, his face doesn’t feel as expressive as it should be. The opening scene of the movie is Ivan introducing us to the rest of the circus animals as they do tricks during the show, and the scene had a similar issue where it didn’t feel like the voice actors were connected to their animal characters. This issue goes away when Stella, an elephant, steps into the circus ring and performs. Stella and the other animals look photorealistic, but Angelina Jolie’s performance blends into the visual effects, making Stella feel alive.
The animators for The One and Only Ivan were tasked with creating photorealistic, yet expressive, CGI animals, and they were able to do that by studying how real animals behave and applying that to their characters. For example, whenever the stray dog Bob sees Ivan, he wags his tail and tilts his head like an actual dog, and when the animals briefly escape the mall, the rabbit Murphy twists his body when he hops. That specific type of movement is called a “binky”, and rabbits do that to show they feel happy and safe. Similarly, Ruby’s ears move as she talks, which shows that she’s energetic and childlike.
Ultimately, the story is simple with some room for thought, which is why this movie can be enjoyed by all audiences. The story starts to move forward when Stella has Ivan promise that Ruby won’t grow up the same way Stella did, and that he’ll free the animals from the mall. At the same time, the Big Top Mall is losing money because people are bored of the repetitive show, which prompts Mack to change Ivan’s show from “The Mighty Silverback” to “The Artistic Ape”. Ivan uses his talent in the show, painting a mural of the wild in order to show the humans that he wishes to be free. The movie ends on a positive note, with Ivan and Ruby being moved to the same zoo, able to spend the rest of their lives in the “wild”.
An interesting camera choice during the ending scene is that the bars that keep the animals in their enclosures are always visible in the background of each shot, which almost suggests that Ivan has traded his old cage for a larger one. Similarly, the internal conflict that Ivan faces in which he has to choose between acting like an angry gorilla for the sake of the show or embracing his artistic talents is also interesting. Based on Ivan’s actions throughout the movie, he is more comfortable drawing, but when Mack sees Ivan’s passion and tries to monetize it, Ivan stops making art out of protest. Although the story is told with children in mind, older viewers can look at the choices made by the director to ask questions, like how does looking at the animals from a money-making standpoint affect them, and if the animals are ever truly free, even after leaving the mall.
With beautiful visuals, talented actors, and a touching story based on real life events, The One and Only Ivan is the perfect movie to see if you have younger siblings, you enjoyed the novel, or if you’re just looking for something cute to watch during quarantine.