What is it with Disney movies and their fondness for parental endangerment? Disney moms and dads are constantly dying, killed, captured or being substituted with evil stepmothers. Following the trend of Bambi, The Lion King, Finding Nemo, and Frozen, the entertainment behemoth’s new film The One and Only Ivan features not one but three parental figures in varying last stages of life: a young gorilla sees his dad shot by poachers, a baby elephant loses her maternal guardian, and a young girl’s mother lies sick in a hospital. Take away these tragedies: it is another cuddly CGI critter-fest from the Mouse House.
A baseball-playing hen named Henrietta scores a home run. A seal named Frankie stresses over losing the ball spinning on his nose. A rabbit named Murphy drives a fire truck. These are just the cutesy preludes of Disney’s new circus show, which set the stage for the headliner and its eponymous star attraction: the One and Only Ivan. Voiced by Sam Rockwell, the stately silverback gorilla plays to type scaring the children in the audience with his King Kong-sized roar and chest thump. But he’s really a gentle giant, who’s growing tired of the whole “angry gorilla” act. Also sharing the limelight with him are an aging African elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie), a stray dog/comic relief named Bob (Danny DeVito), and a pompous poodle named Snickers (Helen Mirren). The CGI gives the movie a sense of realism without losing the endearing charm that there is nothing realistic about talking animals.
The humans that make up the rest of the cast include Ramón Rodríguez as the circus janitor, George, and Ariana Greenblatt as his daughter and Ivan’s human BFF, Julia. Then there’s Bryan Cranston as Mack (Bryan Cranston), the owner of the suburban mall that houses the circus. Business isn’t exactly booming for Mack, and he brings in a fresh star attraction: a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince). Hoping Ruby does not live her entire life in captivity like she did, a dying Stella makes Ivan promise that Ruby won’t suffer the same fate as her. With the help of his trusted sidekick Bob, Ivan tries to organise a breakout like his cartoon cousins from Madagascar.
Beneath the fluff, the fur and the feathers of these animals is a purposeless vacuum. We never get a sense of why Ivan, Ruby or any of the other animals want to leave the circus other than because Stella wanted them to. Disney seems to only care more about getting the furry details on Ivan’s head right, not what’s happening inside it. Though it showcases his capacity for self-conscious reflection, it skips the process on what motivates his behaviour and actions. After Stella’s death, Ruby’s sorrow reminds Ivan of his own trauma from childhood. Ivan was separated from his family as a baby when he was kidnapped by poachers. But remembering that traumatic memory from his childhood — which had been suppressed for so long — becomes key to building a freer future for him, Ruby and the other animals. It makes Ivan question his idea of home: Is it the natural habitat where he was born or the cage where he has spent the last 27 years in captivity? This also ties into Ivan’s artistic abilities, which he rediscovers when Julia gives Ivan some crayons. Once he moves from crayons to painting, the art evolves into a medium of emancipation. It becomes a way to connect to his inner self, and a way to liberation.
Thea Sharrock’s film is an adaptation of the Newbery-winning novel by KA Applegate (the author behind all those Animorphs books you made your parents order when Scholastic brochures were distributed in school). In the close kinship between the animals and their human caretakers, it often feels like these animals were once-humans in their final Animorph stage. Not just because of their human names. Be it a struggle to conform or a case of Stockholm syndrome, the animals keep insisting “Not all humans are bad. They can surprise you”, like the sheep in Animal Farm bleating “four legs good, two legs better” by the end.
Unlike the typical Disney story, The One and Only Ivan does not categorise characters based on binary good and evil allegories, and leaves room for ambiguity. Screenwriter Mike White’s treatment refuses to antagonise anyone: not even Mack, who bought an infant gorilla from poachers, then imprisoned and exploited him for the sake of human entertainment. The self-serving circus owner even sells Ivan’s paintings for his own profit, and coerces a young Ruby into performing Stella’s routine to the point of exhaustion. Still, you are left there wondering: Does the movie want me to root for these animals to escape or the continued sustenance of the circus? See, this is why I much preferred Farm Sanctuary’s eight-minute “Joaquin Phoenix Rescues Mother Cow and Newborn Calf Day after Academy Awards Win” from earlier this year. At least, the people it deems to be the bad guys redeem themselves in a more satisfying ending, than “Mack learns to embrace his baldness, and also learns that animals don’t belong in a circus, but a zoo?” in The One and Only Ivan.
Overall, The One and Only Ivan works more as a filler before the arrival of Mulan than a fully conceived project worthy of its cast’s talent. Rockwell and Prince play off each other quite beautifully, selling the humanity behind their animal personas. Cranston adds some conflict and emotional stakes to the proceedings. For a while, you forget you’re watching the once-Walter White brew a batch of reaction shots alongside computer-generated animals. DeVito throws in a fart, a few wisecracks and a literal “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke as comic diversions. Save for these, there are not any new tricks, not any which impress. Sure, the under-10s will be charmed by the cuteness overkill, but for the adults, The One and Only Ivan is the cinematic equivalent of roadkill.