The One and Only Ivan (2020) Review



With the rise of the streaming services, viewers have turned their attention a wide variety of selections, with Netflix, Hulu, and AppleTV+, and several other all clamoring for users to click onto their streaming sites (i.e. binge). Favorite movies, popular TV shows, and original content are common place and have become the main “thread” to the age of streaming; finding each one having their own unique in their own right. Joining the ranks of the streaming platform, Disney announced Disney+ back in 2019; bringing their collection various TV series, movies, animated features, and originals to join the ever-growing market. In terms of their original content, Disney has shifted some of their planned theatrical releases endeavors to their streaming service in the hopes of bolstering some of its viewership with “original content” that are exclusive to Disney+. Such releases include movies like the live-action remake of Lady and the Tramp, Togo, Magic Camp, and several others, with the most recent being Pixar’s Soul set to debut on Disney+ on Christmas Day 2020. Now, Walt Disney Studios and director Thea Sharrock present the latest feature film to debut on the Disney+ streaming service with the release of The One and Only Ivan, based on the inspiring true story and the book of the same name by K.A. Applegate. Does the movie “shine” on Disney’s streaming platform or is it a forgetful throwaway of a film?


Mack (Bryan Cranston) is the proud owner of the world’s smallest circus, taking his animal variety and acts to the confines of the Big Top Mall. Unfortunately, the crowds are not as what they used to be. On the flip side, Mack’s big draw is Ivan (Sam Rockwell), a silverback lowland gorilla who was raised by the ringmaster, growing comfortable with his part of the show, which involves acting tough and roaring to tense up the spectators. Joined by the aged elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie) and his best canine pal Bob (Danny Devito) as well as several other animal friends, Ivan maintains a happy life inside his cage existence, unable to reconnect with his experiences in the wild as a baby. With ticket sales falling and attendance low, Mack decides to bring a new member to the cirrus: a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) to create interest in the circus, while Ivan is innocently handed crayons by Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of one of Mack’s employees, expressing himself through the art. When Stella gets sick, she makes Ivan promise to return Ruby to the wild, a task that proves difficult for the gorilla, who’s unsure of life is beyond the confines of his cage. Through his friendship with Ruby and his newfound desire to draw, Ivan does something marvelous that will capture the hearts and attentions of everyone.


While I’ve always been a fan of movie theaters and the whole experience, it’s kind of hard not to deny the accessibility that the streaming services have had offered these past several years. To be sure, I have several subscription streaming services, including Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, and thinking of possibly signing up for Hulu in a few months. Like many out there, I immediately signed up for Disney+ when it was launched, with the main prime reason to rewatch a lot of the children’s animated programs from my childhood as well as a few feature films. And yet, I still haven’t seeing The Mandalorian (I definitely have to check that out sometime soon). As for its exclusive theatrical films, it’s been kind of “hit or miss” for me, with the Disney+ original movies offering some form of entertainment, but not enough to be quite noteworthy. Of course, the release of the stage play recording of Hamilton was great, but other releases like Magic Camp, Togo, and Lady and the Tramp were mediocre ones, while Noelle was somewhat forgetful (at least in my opinion). Still, Disney+ has a promising future and I think it will be around for quite some time.

This brings me back to talking about The One and Only Ivan, a feature film release on Disney+. Working at a bookstore for quite some years, I have seeing my fair share of YA novels come and go off the shelves, with a few popular ones being adapted for both the big and small screen. Naturally, some are better than others; finding a handful becoming popular staples in the Young Readers genre, while others have faded into obscurity. I actually do remember when this book came out and definitely gained quite the popularity. Not the height of Harry Potter, but still to make a lot of kids to read it. Plus, the book did receive the coveted Newberry Award back in 2013 as well as several other children’s literary awards, so that’s quite impressive. Thus, that’s probably why a film adaptation of the book would eventually materialize, with Disney picking up the mantle of translating Applegate’s novel from page to screen. To be honest, however, I really didn’t hear much “buzz” about this movie when it was announced or even during its production. My actual “first look” at the movie was when they (Disney) released an official trailer for the project a few months ago and I do have to say that I was a little intrigued by the movie. It looked interesting and I did love the acting talent that was involved in. Plus, with the trailer being released, it promoted the movie to be released on Disney+, with the project originally slated to be released in theaters on August 14th, 2020, but was changed to the company’s streaming service due to the shuddering of movies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That being said, I kept on overlooking seeing The One and Only Ivan on there, but would one day eventually get around to it. So, I finally had some free time and I decided to flip on Disney+ and check out the movie. And what did I think of it? Well, I really did like it. Though there are a few problems with it, The One and Only Ivan is a sweet and touching film that does provide plenty of heart and enjoyable entertainment from start to finish. It’s bit simplistic in nature, but I think that’s the idea….and maybe for the best I believe.

As an additional side-note, since I didn’t get the chance to read Applegate’s book nor the actual “based on true story” accounts (of which this tale of Ivan is based on and that I learned about after the film), my review for this movie is gonna be strictly based on the film itself and not so much on what was changed or added in the translation of book to film (if you know what I mean).

The One and Only Ivan is directed by Thea Sharrock, whose previous directorial works includes such TV episodes from The Hollow Crown and Call the Midwife as well as the feature film Me Before You. Given the background of those projects, Sharrock’s attempt on this particular project is her first attempt into the foray of family / children’s entertainment. In this regard, Sharrock certainly succeeds; approaching this movie with a great sense of gentleness and sincerity to the narrative. Additionally, Sharrock seems to have a great understanding of the feature’s target audience by keeping the film kid-friendly and simplistic. Some might argue that the movie is a bit too simplistic (more on that below), but, for the most part, the film retains a good dose of some wholesome family adventure entertainment; something I wish I could see more in modern day children’s movies. It’s a kind of “throwback” films to movies that I use to grow up watching when I was younger as The One and Only Ivan deals with plenty of heavy issues, but presents its in a way that’s easy to understand (for its target audience). Thus, Sharrock makes the film accessible to all; finding a way to the shape Applegate’s tale into a soft and tenderhearted endeavor that works as people might even shed a tear or two by the time the movie reaches its ending (I surely did). That’s not to say that the movie isn’t devoid of kid-based humor jokes as there is plenty of it (even though it’s the pandering kind), but it definitely works for the movie. In the end, I think that Sharrock did a better job that what I was expecting her to do; making The One and Only Ivan a favorable and breezy family film that approachable to all. Also, before I forget, Sharrock does a good job in expressing a lot of the themes and messages that the story explores, especially Ivan’s a way to express his individuality and being different. Always a good fundamental theme to display.

In terms of presentation, The One and Only Ivan keeps its simplistic nature within its various background / settings; having only a handful of locations to be seeing by its variety of characters (both human and animals alike). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing as the set layouts and production designs are pretty solid for a kid’s feature, but everything is kept with a straightforward glance. Perhaps the best example of this is in the caged areas of where Ivan and his animal friends’ dwell, which is the primary set-piece for the film, with the location looking quite detailed and elaborate and treats the feature with a sense of enclosed areas. Thus, the background setting throughout the movie are pretty good to work within the framework of the picture’s budget. So, I do have mention that the film’s “behind the scenes” main members like Molly Hughes (production design), Rosie Goodwin (set decoration), and the entire art direction department team, for their efforts on this project. In terms of visual effects, the movie does a solid job in bringing the animal characters to life. Granted, the visual effects budget isn’t on level as say as a Hollywood blockbuster endeavor or anything like that, but what’s given and presented definitely works, especially in some of the facial cues / expression given on some of the animal characters, with most notable references on Ivan. So, for what it’s worth, I really did like the visual appeal of the animals in the film. Lastly, the movie’s score, which was composed by Craig Armstrong, provides a beautiful yet gentle musical composition for the movie, which definitely compliments the variety of scenes (be it soft and tender for dialogue moments or sweeping / rousing).

Unfortunately, The One and Only Ivan suffers from several points of criticisms that the feature can’t really escape, despite the major positives the film has to offer. What are they? Well, perhaps the biggest and glaring one that the movie suffers is in its overall story and how small it presents everything or rather how it fails to expand upon its setting. What do I mean? Well, the plot is quite simplistic and, while there is nothing wrong with that, it just makes the feature a little bit underdeveloped, especially considering how short the feature is (roughly 95 minutes in length). Perhaps is goes back to the shaping of adapting Applegate’s novel to the cinematic narrative, which was handled by Mike White. Naturally, White is given the task to shape the children’s novel into a feature film’s tale, I assume something didn’t get ironed out quite properly or expanded upon. This then creates a screenplay that seems very much streamlined from the get-go and I felt that there definitely could’ve been more added in almost every part of the feature…. from dialogue moments to character specific sequences. Then again, this can also go back to Applegate’s narrative itself (again, I didn’t read the book, so I really can’t compare “apples to apples” in that sort of way), but I do wonder how the book and the movie differed in some of the story’s events and what could’ve been done better in the movie.

Additionally, the movie is quite predicable in its formulaic narrative as there isn’t a whole lot of creative originality within its storytelling; finding Sharrock’s direction and White’s script to be rather focused on a well-trodden path that the studio has played out several times. It is, by no means, a terrible or disastrous one, and I still enjoyed the movie, but I just expected the movie to have a better “pull” in its storytelling dynamics and direction. Thus, the film seems to “play it safe” and doesn’t really color outside the lines of similar projects of the children / family entertainment variety.

What definitely helps the movie is in cast, with the selection of actors and actresses assembled for this project to be one that helps elevate various problematic areas. Perhaps the best example of what I’m talking about is in the voice talents that provide the vocals for all the various animals, with the prime example being the film’s main protagonist character of the silverback gorilla Ivan (the one and only), who is voiced by actor Sam Rockwell. Known for his roles in Moon, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Rockwell definitely shines in this movie and he pulls off the voice for Ivan in such a charismatic and laidback way (something almost akin to his own sound of voice). This, of course, makes the character of Ivan rather likeable from start to finish and giving him a sense of vulnerability and growth in the movie. Additionally, actor Danny DeVito (Batman Returns and Matlida) plays a great foil side character in the role of Bob, a canine mutt that is Ivan’s best friends. DeVito’s sarcastic and diction sounding voice is a great compliment to the character of Bob and definitely provides the best laughs in the movie.

Behind those two animal characters, the character of Ruby, a baby African Bush elephant who takes a shine / interest in Ivan, steals the spotlight (quite literally) in the movie. With young actress Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project and Home Before Dark) voice the role, the character of Ruby is sweet and innocent fun to watch on screen, with Prince giving a solid voice to role that’s quite endearing. Lastly, actress Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted and Maleficent) provides the voice for Stella, an aged African Bush elephant that’s one of Ivan’s oldest friends. Although her character isn’t in much of the movie, I think that Jolie did a great job by giving Stella’s voice a sense of old / wisdom gravitas.

The rest of the animal voices, including actress Phillipa Soo (Hamilton and The Code) as the blue and yellow macaw bird named Thelma, and actor Ron Funches (Trolls and 6 Underground) as a white rabbit named Murphy, actor Mike White (Enlightened and School of Rock) as a sea lion named Frankie, and musician singer Chaka Khan as a silkie chicken named Henrietta, are delegated to supporting players in the movie and, while most are just there for continuity or for laughs, I think that there involvement was good as well as talents involved.  The only one that I was somewhat disappointed with the character of Snickers, a white poodle who is voiced by actress Helen Mirren (The Queen and Eye in the Sky). Of course, Mirren absolutely perfectly fine in the role, but the character seems more like an afterthought and really doesn’t get involve with much of the other characters nor the narrative for the most part. Kind of a wasted of Mirren’s vocal talents and to the character of Snickers.

Of the human characters in the movie, actor Bryan Cranston headlines in the role of Mack, the circus owner and ringleader of the world’s smallest big top circus (where Ivan and the rest of the animals resides). Known for his roles in Breaking Bad, Malcom in the Middle, and Argo, Cranston has become more and more of a seasoned actor that’s works have become well-known to both the small and big screen variety. Thus, his participation and involvement on this project is a welcomed one and he does a good job as Mack with Cranston displaying the right amount of charm to the character. Mack is kind of somewhat painted as a sympathetic protagonist (and sometimes antagonist) character in the movie and its clear has to what Sharrock / White want him to be. Although, I think there could’ve been a little bit more to his character in a few scenes (to help flesh him out). All in all, I liked Cranston as Mack.

Behind him, young actress Ariana Greenblatt (A Bad Mom’s Christmas and Avengers: Infinity War) gives a lovingly performance as Julia, a young girl whose dad works for Mack. Greenbalt is splendid in the role, even though the character is rather stock-like / stereotype young female archetype in a kid’s film and certainly helps propel the story forward a few times. That being said, Greenblatt succeeds for innocence youth and her portrayal of Julia in a good-natured way. Likewise, actor Ramon Rodriguez (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Need for Speed) is a good as Julia’s dad, George, even though the character is cliché of sorts as the good / honest and hard-working man that’s providing for his daughter. The rest of the human cast, including actor Owain Arthur (Casualty and Babylon) as a security guard at the Big Top Mall named Castello, actress Eleanor Matsuura (Wonder Woman and MI-5) as news reporter Candance Taylor, and actress Indira Varma (Rome and Game of Thrones) as Dr. Maya Wilson


The story of Ivan and his many talents come to light in the movie The One and Only Ivan. Director Thea Sharrock latest film tackles to adapt Applegate’s popular 2012 YA novel and present a film under the Disney banner; promising softness and a kid-friendly atmosphere nuances. While the movie is quite predictable and never expands upon certain elements (i.e. the world that the movie wants to paint or on particular characters / scenarios), the film still finds a pleasant rhythm within its presentation, especially thanks to the tenderness of the story, the overall cuteness of the narrative, solid voice acting, and spot-on CGI visuals. Personally, I liked this movie. Yes, it was a little bit manufactured (even by modern Disney-esque endeavors), but it still has plenty of heart and family fun to be had within its presentation. Again, its not the best that the “House of Mouse” has put out of late, but its probably one of the better releases on the Disney+ streaming platform. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “recommended” as it seems to be a perfect fit for streaming crowd and is easy to digest for all ages; making the film a fine family movie to watch. In the end, The One and Only Ivan does shine better than most Disney+ originals with its heartfelt message; providing solid entertainment for the younger viewers out there.

4.0 Out of 5 (Recommended)


Released On: August 14th, 2020
Reviewed On: October 26th, 2020

The One and Only Ivan  is 95 minutes long and is rated PG for mild thematic elements

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