When I first went to watch Disney’s The One and Only Ivan, I didn’t expect a lot from it. It’s got high-profile names like Sam Rockwell and Bryan Cranston. The film is also a mix of live-action and CGI, which doesn’t hold up well in my experience. In this case, I was pleasantly surprised by what Disney had to offer.
In The One and Only Ivan, Disney tells a new tale that’s tone can be best described as taking the best of the animated Dumbo and the best of Tarzan and putting it in the lense of the 1990s. More precisely, this film is about what it means to be a friend, the power of art, and what home means.
The way this is explored is through two different eyes, or rather two separate casts. One is how the humans see the situation, and the other is through the voices of the animals who are being animated after a scene is filmed. Rounding out the human cast is Bryan Cranston as Mack, Ramon Rodriguez as George, and Ariana Greenblatt as Julia. All three of the actors do well in their respective roles (especially Cranston), but it felt as though the script was holding their performances at bay. All three of them are given these rich backstories that the film never seems interested in providing any resolution to any of them. In fact, the film often gives them nothing to do except to say hi and bye to the voice cast. When the film does provide them with something to do, it is pure Disney magic. I know that sounds cliche at this point, but there’s just no other way to describe it. It just works.
Now to who you’ll be seeing (or hearing) for most of the film. This voice cast comprises of Sam Rockwell as Ivan, Angelina Jolie as Stella (who also produced the film), Danny DeVito as Bob the dog, Helen Mirren as Snickers the poodle, Brooklynn Price as Ruby, Chaka Khan as Henrietta the chicken, Mike White as Frankie the seal (who also wrote the screenplay), Ron Funches as Murphy the rabbit, and Phillipa Soo as Thelma the parrot. Well, more accurately, you’ll only be hearing Ivan, Bob, and Ruby for most of the film. Like the human cast, many members of this voice cast are shirked when the story doesn’t see a use for them being there. Also, like the human cast, there are terrific performances within here that are just buried underneath the film’s script not knowing what to do with them. Most notably, Chaka Khan’s Henrietta is reduced to making a joke about why she needs to cross the road. Because she’s a chicken. Get it? Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Ivan is the main star of the show here, and he does absolutely kill his vocal performance here. He has these little inflections in his voice that depict the pain of growing up in a cage, his inner thoughts about why humans need someone like him, and that’s really hard to do in a voice performance. You’re no longer relying on these subtle facial ticks, you’re relying on how someone says a specific word to infer the meaning behind that word.
While we’re talking about facial ticks, this is probably a good time to cover the CG animation that brings these animals to life. Since we see animals for much of the film’s runtime, the audience is subconsciously told that there is a requirement to suspend one’s beliefs of what animals can and cannot do in this film. It is up to the animators to take the reference video from the voice actors recording sessions and incorporate that into how the animals move. Unlike Disney’s The Lion King remake from last year, the CG animals work to significant effect here. There is not an unnatural movement or anything that would pull you out of the film. All of these animals look like their real-life counterparts, except they can talk and emote with high accuracy.
How the direction of the film fares depends on your age. There are some emotional moments within that are handled with a delicate tone, but in my adult eyes, the tone becomes somewhat muddled. Maybe that’s because the film is trying to deliver sone mature messaging in a children’s film. Still, I think you can provide that tone without frightening the kids (look at PIXAR’s filmography) and without resorting to juvenile jokes.
Much of that tone might like at the feet of the screenplay and the source material. The humans are written as stereotypes rather than actual people and are often the source of what the film blames the animal’s problems on, even though they are being shown as loving and caring. As you might expect with such writing, this film writes the animals (other than Ivan) as stereotypes. Still, they are seen as altruistic rather than the more difficult proposition of having flaws that might be preventing their happiness.
Outside of a few key moments, the score for The One and Only Ivan is your typical score for the genre. It’s a shame that in a film about the art of self-expression that the score is so one-note, but I can’t say that I could blame Craig Armstrong for the score. It seems as though Disney themselves has a template for scores these days, and while that’s good for most films, I just wanted more from the score.
The cinematography, however, does not disappoint. Paired with the CG animation, some of the shots within The One and Only Ivan are astounding. The camera captures everything. There’s a shot where Mack is driving, and the camera is mounted on the hubcap of the car he’s driving. We also get these extreme close-ups of the animal’s faces whenever they’re emoting to really see what’s going through their heads. It’s fascinating how much the cinematographer was able to capture with almost no reference point for these animals. Kudos.
Overall, while some elements of the film leave a lot to be desired, The One and Only Ivan is a great movie. There’s tons of heart, excellent voice work, stellar CG animation, and astounding cinematography.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
The One and Only Ivan is now streaming on Disney+.