The One and Only Ivan
Director – Thea Sharrock
Cast – Angelina Jolie, Sam Rockwell, Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, Danny DeVito, Brooklynn Prince
With enough Oscar winners in its cast to clog up a Vanity Fair red carpet, The One and Only Ivan is yet another high-profile children’s film that Disney has dumped online during the pandemic. The would-be franchise-starter Artemis Fowl was roasted upon release, and now all eyes are on Mulan, the most expensive film ever made by a female filmmaker with a reported $200 million budget. The One and Only Ivan, to use a network TV analogy, feels like lead-in programming.
The trouble with the film, if you’ve seen the trailer, is that despite featuring the talents of Angelina Jolie, Sam Rockwell, Helen Mirren, Danny DeVito and others, it restricts them to playing CGI animals of different shapes and sizes. The only recognisable live-action performer is Bryan Cranston, who, don’t get me wrong, is a wonderfully talented actor with his own devoted fanbase, but hardly someone who can sell a big-budget film targeted at children.
Watch The One and Only Ivan trailer here
None of these actors, with the exception of Rockwell (who plays the titular gorilla Ivan, a role that would have gone to Owen Wilson a decade ago), Cranston (Ivan’s smarmy circus ringleader), and DeVito (who plays a blabbermouth dog named Bob), have much to do. With a running time of around 90 minutes, The One and Only Ivan provides only about a dozen lines each to its talented cast — I’m sure that Jolie, who also serves as producer, wrapped recording her material in a day.
Do children care how famous the man or woman voicing the serene elephant in the film is? Probably not. But their parents might.
Casting movie stars in animated films is a trend that began in the early 2000s, when Dreamworks, in an effort to set itself apart from Pixar, lured audiences in with glossy marketing campaigns featuring some of the biggest names. Which is precisely the strategy used in this film. It remains as distracting now as it used to be in the past.
The One and Only Ivan is an uncommonly pensive Disney film — one that is closer thematically with Christopher Robin and Pete’s Dragon than, say, Aladdin or The Jungle Book. Writer Mike White and director Thea Sharrock slather the film with a layer of melancholy that might be too intense for children.
Ivan, who used to be the star of the show once upon a time, finds that he no longer has any desire to perform daily shows at a strip mall. All he wants to do is retire in peace. I didn’t expect this movie to remind me of The Irishman, another film in which a character devoted to their job is struck by mortality, but there you have it. In scene after scene, Ivan sits in silence, stewing in a mixture of regret — at a life not lived — but also hope, of going out on his own terms. Rockwell is excellent, despite being severely hindered by ones and zeroes.
This image released by Disney Plus shows Ivan the gorilla, voiced by Sam Rockwell, left, and Bob the dog, voiced by Danny DeVito, in a scene from The One and Only Ivan.
Like fellow Disney+ live-action and CGI hybrid Lady and the Tramp, The One and Only Ivan features stunning visual effects work. The animals, especially Ivan, are breathtakingly realised. Their expressions aren’t as animated as they would’ve been in a motion-capture movie — recall the almost human-like faces of the beasts in Andy Serkis’ Planet of the Apes films and Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle — but neither does the film resemble National Geographic documentary footage.
Along with its stupendously dark parallels to slavery — Ivan was shipped over to America from Africa, and spent nearly 30 years dancing to the tunes of a white man — the film’s computer-generated effects are its highlights. They would’ve looked brilliant on the big screen.
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The filmmaker Nia DaCosta — days before news of her working with Disney on Captain Marvel 2 broke — speculated that Mulan director Niki Caro being a woman had something to do with the studio’s decision to release the film on streaming. I wonder if similar reasoning went into putting this film out online as well. There’s no way of knowing. The One and Only Ivan might be a little dour for children during quarantine, especially if they’re expecting a lighthearted film about talking animals, but it’s certainly not as unhealthy as the stuff they normally consume.