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Review: Intimate quality of `Ivan’ makes characters’ bonds feel believable

Douglas Laman
Special to Texoma Marketing and Media Group
Bryan Cranston, right, is seen with a gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) in a scene from "The One and Only Ivan."

“Why do things have to be put in cages?” asks Julia (played by Arrian Greenblatt) during a scene in “The One and Only Ivan.” “Why must people get sick?” Those are pretty big questions for a child to ask. They’re also the kind of queries that symbolize the heavily emotional nature of “The One and Only Ivan.” Streaming on Disney+, this is a film more concerned with tugging at your heartstrings than making pop culture references. Nothing in “Ivan” gets anywhere near the introspective darkness of “Where the Wild Things Are,” but it’s still more “Born Free” than “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” Not all of the poignancy works, but I’d be lying if I said “Ivan” didn’t eventually win me over.

Based on a book of the same name by K.A. Applegate, the titular Ivan is a silverback gorilla voiced by Sam Rockwell. He spends his days with a crew of other animals performing for patrons in a circus housed inside of a shopping mall. Though he puts on a big show for audiences of being a ferocious gorilla, Ivan is much more of a Mr. Rogers than a Mr. Perfect. His soft nature comes in handy when a new baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince) arrives at the circus. She could use a friend like Ivan to guide her around her new home. Of course, elephants aren’t supposed to call a circus their home. Neither are gorillas. It isn’t long before Ivan makes a promise to Ruby to get her and all the circus animals back to the wild.

It’s quite commendable how tenderhearted Mike White’s screenplay for “One and Only Ivan” is. Family movies so often incorporate abrasive dialogue to make their stories seem hip. “Ivan,” however, has no hesitation in depicting the various circus animals just being nice to each other. Even Ivan’s initial jealousy over no longer being the headlining act once Ruby arrives quickly evaporates after he sees Ruby being nervous about performing. Maybe I’ve grown soft during my time in quarantine, but I like kindness. This unabashedly sincere approach to the dialogue does leave certain supporting characters, like Julia or older elephant Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie), feeling like vessels to deliver self-affirmation expressions to Ivan rather than individual characters.

Still, the empathetic dynamic between most of “Ivan’s” characters warms the heart more often than it leaves it cold. Even better, White’s script is that it isn’t afraid to just let the movie be still for a while. Rather than pack the film with noise to ensure kids never stop paying attention, Ivan and company have extended dialogue exchanges that don’t have to be accompanied by loudness or frantic activity. There’s an intimate quality to these scenes that makes the growing bonds between the characters believable. Thea Sharrock’s restrained direction nicely complements this aspect of the script. Recurring nighttime conversations between Ivan and Ruby, for example, are captured so that our focus remains on the primate and pachyderm. Sharrock doesn’t feel the need to cut to side gags or incorporate distracting camerawork.

More problematic than the pathos in “Ivan” is the comedy, which tends to feel obligatory rather than hysterical. A fart joke here, a comically inept security guard there, a toupee gag in the middle of the story, lots of celebrities (like Chaka Khan) just here to deliver comedic lines off screen. These are all predictable sources of levity that even your average 5 year old will see coming. Meanwhile, White’s blending of disparate traits of Ivan’s personality (chiefly his artistic abilities and his struggles to remember his childhood) with the gorilla’s desire to get Ruby back home isn’t as organic as it could be. This is the rare kid’s movie that could stand to be a bit longer just to allow these individual aspects of Ivan’s life more time to coalesce.

Ivan and the other animals are brought to life with well-realized CGI visual effects as well as solid voice work. It’s especially nice to see Rockwell, who has so often played slimy characters in his career, getting the chance to go outside of his wheelhouse and play the primate manifestation of kindness. “The One and Only Ivan” is more competent than groundbreaking, but it’s got an endearingly gentle spirit that’s largely absent from modern family movies. I don’t know why things have to be put in cages, or why people have to get sick. But, I do know that “The One and Only Ivan” works quite well as heartwarming family fare.

Douglas Laman is a lifelong movie fan and writer. A graduate of UT Dallas, he is preparing to become a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.