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Back when 2020's movie release schedule looked like the majority of titles would actually come out in theaters, there were a pair of films on it from Disney that were unique in that they weren't part of established franchises or ongoing theatrical trends that were all but guaranteed to print box office cash. As such, it's little surprise that when the theatrical schedule got thrown in the trash, these titles were among the first to be slated for release on Disney+. Artemis Fowl left a lot to be desired when it dropped in early summer, but Thea Sharrock's The One and Only Ivan is a much better movie that will warm a lot of hears when it hits the Disney streaming service.
"The One and Only Ivan" is how a local billboard describes the movie's title character: a silverback gorilla who is the star attraction of a small circus that exists in the center of a nondescript shopping mall in a non-specific place at a non-specific time. Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) plays at being a ferocious beast when it's his turn in the spotlight, but is actually a humble and soft-spoken creature, having been raised from a very young age by the circus owner and ringmaster Mack (Bryan Cranston). The circus has seen better days, however, and Mack tries to revitalize attendance by bringing in a new baby elephant, Ruby (voiced by The Florida Project's Brooklyn Prince) – who is immediately adopted by the circus' longtime resident elephant, Ivan's friend Stella (voiced by Angelina Jolie, who also co-produced the film). However, when young Ruby, who has never known anything but captivity, begins to wonder what it could mean to be free, it awakens similar feelings in the other animals, none more so than Ivan.
Disney’s CGI animals continue to impress on a technical level.
Maybe I was a little off base in saying that The One and Only Ivan isn't part of a previously established successful trend, as it's arguably the latest entry in the "Disney can use CGI to make animals look amazingly photorealistic" series (following titles like the theatrically released The Lion King remake and the previous Disney+ entry, Lady and the Tramp). The technology on display looks as amazing as ever. From Ivan the gorilla to Stella the elephant to Murphy the bunny rabbit, the animals could easily be mistaken for the real thing... were they not speaking English.
But as amazing as the technology is, it hasn't been without its downsides. The animal characters have tended to work better when they're secondary to human leads if only because it's easier to not focus on them too much. When the CGI characters take center stage they become a bit more difficult to embrace because animals don't express themselves the same way that humans do, and it becomes harder to feel the emotions we're supposed to be feeling. The voice artist ends up doing all the work, and is not aided in any real way by the digital character.
The One and Only Ivan improves over its predecessors by dealing with both of these issues. The majority of the animal characters, while no less important to the overall story, are not the focus, making their lack of ability to emote less of a problem. Many of them have smaller roles than the human characters. Only Ivan himself is truly a major character among the animals, and by virtue of the fact that Ivan is a gorilla, the character is capable of expressions not unlike those of humans, making the audience's ability to relate easier. The emotional moments are still a bit tougher to pull off when they rely on other animal characters, though the vocal performances here are strong across the board, which helps.
The One And Only Ivan succeeds despite an almost complete lack of conflict.
The characters, both animal and human, truly are key to The One and Only Ivan's success, because, to be blunt, there's just short of zero conflict of any kind in the movie. There's no villain in Ivan to speak of. Bryan Cranston's circus owner character, while he might be the person standing between the animals and freedom, is no bad guy. He's as sympathetic a character as any other. He clearly loves his animals and cares for them, and they seem to like him. There is only one scene in the entire movie where Ivan feels anything less than childlike love for his surrogate father, and then the scene ends, never to be mentioned again.
The almost complete lack of conflict feels like it could be a plus as there certainly won't be anything that scares away potential younger viewers, there's no more than a single moment where any character appears to be in any real peril, and it's over in seconds. Viewers could actually find themselves bored by The One and Only Ivan as a result. The vast majority of the film consists of little more than two or three characters in a room having conversations. Granted those characters are talking animals, and so for some that may be enough, but it's a surprisingly dialogue-heavy movie. That works for me. It won't work for everybody.
The One And Only Ivan’s story of freedom will certainly resonate with a quarantined Disney+ audience.
And yet, while there a couple of odd quirks to The One And Only Ivan, in the end the emotional moments still hit you like a ton of bricks. I'd wager a lot of viewers of any age will be wiping away tears while the credits role, if not for the fictional Ivan than for the story of the real one that roles before the closing credits.
Maybe it's just the simple fact that Ivan's goal is to get the hell outside during a time when that's all the rest of us want to do, but it all works. Either way, the story of The One and Only Ivan is one that will resonate more now than it might if it were delayed a year for a theatrical release. Disney made the right decision bringing this one to Disney+ for the people who need this story in their lives right now.