The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan is “inspired by a true story,” but it's filled with talking animals, so you know it's only loosely based on something true. This is a deeply odd film. The real Ivan, a silverback gorilla, didn't go outside for twenty-seven years, we are told. At the same time, the film asks us to believe that being kept in containment for that long was really an act of love, and that the gorilla was perfectly okay with it until he changed his mind. Punctuating this bizarre premise are juvenile gags about dog farts and a guy having his toupee blown off. Disney hasn't produced such a bizarre animal-related feature since 1995's Operation Dumbo Drop.

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) lives in a shopping mall and is the star of a mini-circus run by his owner, Mack (Bryan Cranston). Despite also having an elephant (Angelina Jolie), a poodle (Helen Mirren), a seal (Mike White), and a chicken (Chaka Khan), Mack's staff consists of only one helper, George (Ramon Ramirez), and a security guard. How he properly cares for these and a few other animals is never addressed. Despite Ivan's popularity, the show just hasn't been pulling audiences in the way it used to, leaving Mack with some serious financial problems.

He tries to rectify them by bringing in a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project). That only helps a little. Then George's daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) gives Ivan some crayons and paper. Why? Because the movie would end if she didn't. Ivan, it turns out, likes to draw, and sometimes the humans can even correctly guess what he's doodling. Uh-huh.

So The One and Only Ivan is about how the uncommon sight of an artistic gorilla revitalizes the circus, right? Wrong! You see, Ivan has some vague memories of what it was like to live in the wilderness. After one of his fellow performers passes away, he decides that a life of performing from inside his little room isn't enough for him. With the help of stray dog pal Bob (Danny DeVito), he decides to escape.

The true story here is that there was a real Ivan who was raised by a human family. When he grew too big, they displayed him for nearly three decades in a glass enclosure inside a shopping center. Animal rights activists began demanding a more humane living situation for him after he was featured on an episode of National Geographic Explorer, so Ivan was sent to the Atlanta Zoo. That story inspired author Katherine Applegate, on whose book The One and Only Ivan is based.

My suspicion is that whole conceit of telling the story from Ivan's point of view works better on the page than it does on the screen. There are serious issues of animal welfare here that become trivialized by the silly slapstick humor (plus a general desire to avoid them). If Mack loves his animals so much, why does he keep them captive? Another problem is that the movie doesn't know what it wants to be. We're led to think it's going to be about a drawing gorilla, yet that serves only to segue awkwardly into the idea that Ivan wants to leave. There is exactly one scene in which a crowd sees Ivan's work. The way that scene plays out is so implausible that I literally yelled, “Oh, come on!” at the screen. If it's not going to run with that idea, why include it at all?

The One and Only Ivan makes it clear that the title character really loves performing until he suddenly doesn't. That transition feels forced, ensuring that we don't believe Ivan's journey. Sappy when it should be touching, dopey when it should be smart, and dumb when it should be funny, the movie has realistic CGI effects, but no magic whatsoever.

out of four

The One and Only Ivan is rated PG for mild thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.