There’s a late summer laze to Disney’s third-tier kids film The One and Only Ivan, one of their rare live-action offerings that isn’t yet another unnecessary remake of an animated hit. It’s a true story that inspired a much-loved novel which in turn became, briefly, a hot property in Hollywood with Mike Newell attached to direct a script from the excellent Mike White and Angelina Jolie signing on as producer and star. But a long road lay ahead and six years after the rights were swooped up, the end product now lumbers into view on Disney+, a theatrical release cancelled due to the ongoing pandemic.
Although on reflection, it’s a merciful transition, a passable enough adventure on the small screen that would have felt stranded on anything bigger. It’s not that it looks cheap per se, far from it, there’s just something rushed and unremarkable about it, a secondhand quickie that has the ingredients to soar but can’t quite engineer them in a way that lifts it off the ground. The story focuses on a silverback gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) who is raised by Mack (Bryan Cranston) as if he were a son but as Ivan ages, he becomes too big to keep at home and so he’s moved to Mack’s mall circus as a main attraction. Years later, where we initially meet him, he’s content enough with his routine although the business is flailing. When a baby elephant is brought on board, Ivan is reminded of the wilderness he has quietly come to miss and so a plan is hatched.
One of the biggest issues with many of Disney’s live-action, or at least part live-action, remakes of their animated features is that the studio has been taking slight stories and expanding them beyond what’s necessary. Take Cinderella (74 minutes to 106) or Dumbo (64 minutes to 112), both bloated misfires that struggled to pad their way to an adult length. Strangely, the opposite is true here as in a swift 94 minutes, White races through events at such speed that we scarcely have time to take a breath and rather than feeling as though we’re being whisked away with the magic of it all, we’re left wondering what was left on the cutting room floor. Because so many connecting scenes are missing and so many characters underdeveloped that one starts to wonder how torturous the post-production process might have been, a rather characterless film seeming more like it was assembled by committee rather than impassioned individuals. It’s disappointing given White’s great ability as a comic writer (from The Good Girl to Enlightened to School of Rock) and a strange choice for acclaimed theatre director Thea Sharrock, who never really finds a way to make the film look like anything more than production line Disney content.
A reliable ace is Sharrock’s deftly picked cast, a reminder yet again of Disney’s ability to look beyond star power to find distinctive, well-matched voices. The lineup might be starrier than usual here but each actor brings character to their respective animal from Jolie’s elderly elephant to Danny DeVito’s stray dog to Helen Mirren’s pampered poodle and after big names being thrown voice work for their status rather than suitability (Warner’s Scoob being the most recently egregious example), it’s refreshing to see a finer balance. There’s also some solid effects work with the animals but the aforementioned rush means that emotional beats aren’t given the space to truly land and so while Ivan’s face might emote in a way that’s impactful, he’s not given enough of a character (his ability to paint, pushed to the forefront in ads, is a subplot at best) to ever successfully tug at our heartstrings. His murky, unsure father-son relationship with Cranston is also rather empty, the knotty morality of how the two really see each other never fleshed out enough.
There are some interesting, briefly teased, ideas about captivity and the psychology of animals who have grown reliant on the humans they also silently resent but as with so much of the film, they fade fast, silenced with a dog fart. Rather than a heartwarming family favourite-in-the-making, The One and Only Ivan is just a vaguely watchable cookie-cutter caper thrown together by people who should know how to make something far sweeter and substantial, a fleeting attraction for undiscerning young kids and a whelming waste for anyone older.
Source: The Guardian