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“The One And Only Ivan” Is A Simple Yet Family Friendly Tale

Disney is the premier company for family friendly fare, and rightly so. Their brand is synonymous with making children happy. At their best, they can also produce content that delights adults in the same manner. Their latest effort, The One and Only Ivan, attempts to pull that feat off, with mixed results. Younger viewers will love the look of the flick, the silliness at times, and the simple resolutions. Older viewers will grasp on to the emotions on display, but wish they were followed through on more. It all ends up becoming a mixed bag that kids will dig on, but adults might not. Coming this week to Disney+, it’s nothing to avoid, but it also falls short of its fully intended goal, and that’s a bit of a let down.

The movie is a family adventure, based on a popular children’s book. For as long as he can remember a gorilla named Ivan (voice of Sam Rockwell) has performed as the main attraction at the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Run by Mack (Bryan Cranston), the kindly mastermind of the show, which has seen better and more lucrative days, Ivan and a host of performing animals have had a decently good life, if not the free one their species needs. Ivan’s gig is to be ferocious, though he doesn’t feel that way, preferring art instead. When a baby elephant named Ruby (voice of Brooklynn Prince) joins the struggling show, it gives things a jolt, but also inspires Ivan to begin caring for her, including a plot to get everyone out of captivity. It proves to be something that can, if done right, change everyone’s lives for good. Thea Sharrock directs a screenplay by Mike White, with a score for Craig Armstrong, as well as cinematography by Florian Ballhaus. The rest of the voice cast includes Danny DeVito, Angelina Jolie, Chaka Khan, Helen Mirren, Phillipa Soo, and more, while the human element also features Ariana Greenblatt and Ramon Rodriguez.

Much of this film is lightly charming and will delight kids. Adults, however, may find some of the narrative shortcuts frustrating for an otherwise quality product. The former group will appreciate almost everything that is being attempted, while the latter group will not. The voice cast, while never going above and beyond, is totally solid, while Bryan Cranston’s live action turn has echoes of a far deeper and more emotional part. He’s good, but not leaning in to more of what he’s feeling is a failing. Then, there’s the ending, which may bring tears, as well as smiles, but also cuts short so many characters and their stories that it’s also rather frustrating. It’s hard to both love and hate a resolution, but this manages to do that.

The One and Only Ivan makes the choice to sidestep as many of the darker elements of the plot as it can, but the flick also doesn’t completely avoid them, which is a puzzling choice. There’s death, divorce, illness, and more, but they’re done not just in a family friendly manner, but in a winking way that robs them of some of their poignancy. It would have been better to either commit to being a mature family option or just go full on for the youngest of viewers. This middle ground is where I found myself at odds with the production, which otherwise is able to largely please in a simple way.

Tomorrow, Disney+ subscribers will be able to give The One and Only Ivan a look. Even if I’m not overtly recommending the film, I’m also not telling you to stay away. It’s thoroughly decent, with moments of something more, which it sadly never commits to. If you have kids, this is great for them. Solo adult viewers, however, may have a more complicated choice to make. I don’t regret watching the movie (how could I, it’s still part of the best job in the world), but I do wish we’d been given a bit more than this. Alas.

The One and Only Ivan comes to Disney+ tomorrow.

(Photos courtesy of Disney+)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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