What is it about talking CGI animals and their expressive eyes that can reduce grown adults to full-on sobs?
Or maybe it’s just the adult writing this review.
‘The One and Only Ivan’, Disney’s latest star-studded live-action film based on a children’s novel (and on a true story) of a silverback gorilla’s journey from captivity to freedom, will get you in your feelings when you least expect it.
An understated and simple effort, it does occasionally force tried-and-true (and tired) tear-jerker tropes — life versus death; the naivety and hopefulness of youth juxtaposed against the sorrow of ageing without having tasted true freedom. But, as a whole, it deals delicately with loss, friendship and the idea of breaking the cycle of abuse.
Silverback gorilla Ivan (Sam Rockwell) lives in a rundown strip mall in America, where he’s the star of a dying circus show named after him — ‘The One and Only Ivan’. When he’s not putting on a show for the dwindling crowd — that is, roaring and thumping his chest in pretend-anger (he’s more of a lover than a fighter) — Ivan spends his days lounging in a cage with his best friend Bob (Danny DeVito), a dirty street dog who hates humans almost as much as he loves sneaking indoors to snooze on his favourite silverback’s belly.
Ivan’s sidekicks include the sage and wise elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), Snickers the Poodle who loves a good blow-dry (Helen Mirren) and Henriette the Chicken (Chaka Khan).
Desperate for business to pick back up, circus trainer Mack (Bryan Cranston, one of a handful of human performances in the film) decides to revive the show by bringing in baby elephant Ruby (Brooklyn Prince). However, the older circus animals grow protective and don’t want Ruby to grow up in captivity like they did.
At first, the purpose of the film is unclear. But soon you realise it’s a commentary on freedom. It draws a line between domesticated animals such as dogs, and wild animals who belong in free-roaming habitats. It’s also a slightly outdated attempt at indicting the use of animals for commercial entertainment. In a sense, it’s an important film for children to view, though it may be a little tainted by all the anthropomorphism (that is, assigning human qualities to animals).
On the other hand, gorillas do share between 95 to 99 per cent DNA with humans, making them one of the closest species to humankind. It’s not difficult to get drawn into the world of Ivan, who has memories and aspirations, and even a creative streak, which he rediscovers when a young regular gifts him some crayons and blank paper.
The majority of the film is set in a single location, the mall. As a result, Cranson’s portrayal of human trainer Mack is, unfortunately, pretty one-dimensional. We don’t get much indication of what he might be like when he’s not wrangling animals and trying to keep his outdated business model afloat.
Mack is also portrayed as being frazzled but benevolent; even though we are told that keeping animals in captivity is evil, we never see Mack, the guy who started this whole thing, as a truly wicked man. Instead, he’s a good-meaning entrepreneur who’s just trying to keep the doors open. The distinction between BAD and GOOD isn’t as clear as other movies in the genre, which isn’t a deal-breaker, but it certainly dulls the stakes by quite a bit.
You don’t have to be familiar with the true story that inspired the movie before you watch it. But the film recounts the story of the real-life Ivan at the end. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1962, he was captured in the wild and raised by humans.
But by the age of three, the gorilla had grown too big for domestic life, so he was relocated to a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington, where he was exhibited to shoppers from the inside of a concrete enclosure. After a successful campaign for Ivan’s freedom from those four walls, he was relocated to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, followed by Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, where he had acres of land to roam. One of the most memorable things about him was that he could paint, amazing visitors who came to see him.
‘The One and Only Ivan’ is a funny, emotional and engaging film for the whole family. It tells an interesting and fairly original story, emphasising a creature’s innate desire to be free and to see the world, without having to be shackled to a job or a cage.
Rockwell does a great job of injecting Ivan with wry humour and just the right amount of old-man grumpiness. Jolie’s soft-spoken portrayal of Stella is underwhelming, though that can probably be attributed to weak scripting. And, we don’t want to say he steals the show, but DeVito as street dog Bob is undeniably the best part of the film — we certainly wouldn’t mind a spin off to see what his next adventure holds. Even if he does continue to hate us humans.
‘The One and Only Ivan’ begins streaming on OSN on August 22, through its deal with Disney+ in the region.