There are any number of talking animal movies out there but the genre probably kicked off in earnest with Babe in 1995 and, at least in terms of the visual effects, came to a peak with The Lion King last year.
Now though we have The One and Only Ivan to add to the mix and while all of the animal stuff is a fairly standard tale of captivity anguish there are some different layers to this film that make it more interesting than just another Dolittle style parade of puppy pratfalls and four footed fart jokes.
The film is adapted from a successful children’s book of the same name but as presented feels quite similar to previous Disney movies. There are elements of Dumbo here, although the elephant is cuter than in Tim Burton’s recent film, as well as Lady and the Tramp and Aristocats and it wears this heritage on its sleeve. On more than one occasion I was surprisingly reminded of Toy Story as well and this felt more derivative. At one point Ivan, the Silverback gorilla, has to face up to possibly not being his owner’s favourite plaything anymore and when a new animal is arriving boxed up for the zoo, the buck rabbit hopes for a female rabbit in the same way as Mr. Potato Head was holding out for a Mrs. Potato Head at Andy birthday party. It is also reminiscent of Charlotte’s Web and Madagascar in various plot developments and with some of its characterisations. Around this though, there are hints of another, less family oriented film that makes this a little more than just another fluffy kid’s movie.
As the title indicates, Ivan is the main character and he and his fellow creatures are working and living together in a mini circus tucked away in the corner of a run down shopping mall. So far so fluffy. In his relationship with his keeper though there are strong reflections of Caesar and Will in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Bryan Cranston’s Mack, who raised Ivan from infancy but now keeps him in a cage and forces him to perform, is a morally ambiguous character. He genuinely cares for his his primate buddy but I’m not sure he has his best interests at heart (even if he randomly did chose the gorilla over his wife). At times I half expected Ivan to stand up and really talk, shouting ‘no’, attacking his captor and making a break for the Golden Gate Bridge. This aspect gives the film genuine darker undertones and more complex layers that don’t exist in something like Cats and Dogs or Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Supporting this is the brilliant computer animation and the impressive work of performance capture actor Ben Bishop. Integrity demands that at this point I divulge that Ben Bishop is a friend of mine but from talking to him and from getting a better understanding of what he did on this film I watched closely and in doing so saw how the visual effects and his physicality combined to get a really emotive performance out of the hairy protagonist. We’ve seen it before from Andy Serkis in the aforementioned Planet of the Apes film and it sequels but credit to all, director Thea Sharrock included, for giving the same attention to detail here. We’ve not seen this nuance in any of the recent Kong movies, or indeed from any of the animals in Jon Favreau’s vaunted version of The Lion King.
There are some issues with the film. The script is not always as inspiring as it aims to be and I’m not sure that all of the voice casting works. Sam Rockwell’s vocals don’t seem suited to a gorilla and neither do Angelina Jolie’s to an elephant. There is an odd lack of energy in Rockwell’s performance as well that fails to match the physical work of Bishop. Danny DeVito does make a good dog, as surprisingly does Helen Mirren (she is a poodle) but Phillipa Soo and Chaka Khan are wasted as a parrot and a chicken respectively. In fact for Soo, who can be seen right now alongside this movie on Disney+ doing incredible work in Hamilton, this seems like a bit of an insult. I’m sure she doesn’t feel she’s above just getting the occasional squawked line but she most certainly is. It isn’t like having Neil Patrick Harris voicing the monkey in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs or Alan Tudyk doing the chicken in Moana. It doesn’t feel like a gag, it feels like an accomplished woman not getting the work she deserves.
Ultimately The One and Only Ivan is best suited to a younger audience but does have some strong performances, some nice touches and a refreshing approach to some of its themes. Just because I’d have preferred it if it followed through on what I thought it was starting to promise and had the animals overthrowing their human oppressors, that isn’t a failing, and actually it kind of still did this in its own way.
The Ripley Factor
Phillipa Soo’s colourful bird notwithstanding, there are a number of key female roles in this film. The zoo animals are fairly evenly split between male and female and they all have their own agency. Most significant are Jolie’s senior pachyderm and her young charge Ruby, performed by Nick Kellington and voiced by Brooklyn Prince, who both drive the plot.
Among the humans you also have twelve year old Ariana Greenblatt as Julia who is courageous and just as is very much the saviour of the piece so it’s a good film for representations of animals and women.