It’s charming enough, but The One and Only Ivan spreads its true story much too thin in an effort to please as wide a market as possible.
Disney, and thus Disney+, is a family thing. Nothing in its library is edgy or challenging or unsuited to the whole family, except those bits of it that are racist, obviously, but let’s not worry about that too much for now. This fun for all ages mandate is a bit of a hurdle for The One and Only Ivan, Disney’s big streaming release of the weekend, since it’s a film that wants to be about some lofty, difficult ideas, but can’t be, so just ends up being about nothing at all.
Naturally, the story, which is based on the Newbery Medal-winning children’s book by Katherine Applegate that is itself based on a true story, wants to appeal to kids who’re too young to ponder the ethics of animal captivity and adults for whom the very well-rendered CGI animals aren’t going to be enough. That middle ground is a tough spot to occupy for any film, but especially one such as this, which treats the most interesting thing about its titular character – his ability to express himself through art – as just one of many competing subplots.
The truth behind this tale is genuinely compelling, and The One and Only Ivan at least treats it as such on the level of visual effects and involved talent, both of which impress. Thea Sharrock directs from a screenplay by Mike White, and there are big names all over the dying little circus where Ivan (Sam Rockwell) acts as the headline act for Bryan Cranston’s ringleader, Mack. Angelina Jolie plays an elephant. Danny DeVito plays a scruffy terrier. Helen Mirren plays a poodle. Everyone’s pretty amiable and easy-going, even Mack, who on some level is the film’s villain, having kept these animals in captivity against their will, but it never really comes across that way, and Cranston, game as ever, is straining to make an underwritten part actually mean something.
It’s the arrival of baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince) and the attention of Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the daughter of one of the stagehands, that kick-start the plot by forcing Ivan to question the circus set up and learn to render his feelings as striking artworks. This is the stuff that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think was the most ridiculous flourish, but The One and Only Ivan really doesn’t make much of it, so busy is it with the rest of the corny characters and their wacky shenanigans.
This feels like a disservice to Ivan and indeed to the film’s underlying themes of allowing animals to roam free, something that all of the characters eventually realize they want. Mack’s financial woes are never really given much attention beyond him occasionally snapping about having to make a living in any way he can, and it builds to a remarkably saccharine ending that feels unearned. A multi-page postscript lays out the overall shape of Ivan’s real story and fate, and one gets the sense you could have just read that and spared yourself from having to watch the film, which is inoffensive to a fault, and leaves its very big subject feeling lightweight.