The One and Only Ivan (AU - PG/US - PG)

In a Word: Confined

The One and Only Ivan

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) and Bryan Cranston as Mack in The One and Only Ivan. PICTURE: Courtesy of Disney © 2020 Disney Enterprises Inc.

The latest movie to premiere on streaming platform Disney+ instead of cinemas due to COVID-19 shutdowns is The One and Only Ivan. The film features a photo-realistic menagerie of animals, a star studded cast and darker themes than typical Disney fare - but the most surprising thing about the film is how much is actually based on true events.

Of course, the real story of Ivan doesn’t involve talking animals and a prison breakout masterminded by an ingenious ape, however the basic facts of the film are true. Ivan, the silverback gorilla, was rescued as a baby from poachers and adopted into a family in America. When he became too big to handle, he was moved to a cage in a shopping centre where he became a star attraction and learned the remarkable ability to paint pictures. The story of his life became the subject of a children’s book which is the inspiration for this CGI extravaganza.

"It is a bold move to see a circus animal story explore themes of freedom and animal rights. This causes the focus of the story to be split between the wonder and charm of cute animals doing circus tricks and the depressing plight of animals in captivity."

The truly impressive cast includes Bryan Cranston as the beleaguered circus owner Mack, Sam Rockwell as the voice of the titular Ivan and Danny DeVito as the voice of his faithful canine friend while Angelina Jolie voices a wise elephant and Helen Mirren a privileged poodle. This ensemble of animals have their routine as circus attractions in a shopping mall thrown into disarray when a new baby elephant is brought in to freshen up the show. This newcomer makes Ivan realise the confinement they live in and inspires him to begin a quest for freedom.

It is a bold move to see a circus animal story explore themes of freedom and animal rights. This causes the focus of the story to be split between the wonder and charm of cute animals doing circus tricks and the depressing plight of animals in captivity. While the storytellers may be lauded for tackling a more serious subject, it does result in a heavier tone than the typical antics of the talking animal movie. In fact, there are moments that are downright philosophical as the stray dog Bob (DeVito) muses on the dilemma between choosing a life of security in a cage and the danger of freedom in the wild. This is certainly not a typically question that a child would be pondering.

The heavy tone and measured pace keeps this film from being one of the more entertaining entries in Disney’s canon. There is an attempt to lighten things up with some slapstick humour and playful banter which further highlights the muddled tone. Bryan Cranston has the tricky task of being both a loving patron and an overbearing taskmaster. There is no clear “bad guy” in this Disney tale - a more realistic portrayal of life - but another departure from tales of this genre.

The climax of the film, however, does demonstrate the power of art to create social change. So if a gorilla in captivity can paint his way to freedom in his world, how much more can the pictures, stories and messages we share make a positive difference in ours?