This ape wins you over, and Sam Rockwell is winning in this voice role.
This year, alone, I’ve received two crappy live-action family adventures with CGI animals. There was “Dolittle” with Robert Downey, Jr. arguably wasted as the man who can talk to animals, and then, there was “Call of the Wild” with a fake landscape and a dog who looks like he should be making himself a dry martini.
I’ve had my doubts about “The One and Only Ivan,” because CGI animals are used, but it ends up being surprisingly good. It’s provides an emotional depth for the main silverback gorilla Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), good energy for the kids, and a strong heart for the adults.
Ivan is the only gorilla at a struggling shopping center circus called “Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade,” run by the stressed, but well-meaning Mack (Bryan Cranston). He’s supposed to be the strong gorilla, but really, he’s a softie who loves drawing. Then, the janitor’s (Ramon Rodriguez) little girl Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) gives him her crayons, and he starts drawing pictures. Maybe that could help the circus become an extravaganza again.
One night, an elderly elephant (voiced by Angelina Jolie) passes away, and her dying wish to Ivan is that he keeps the new baby elephant Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince) safe. He leads her and the other animals on an unsuccessful escape attempt to the wilderness, but he manages to get a second chance at freedom with finger paints.
The supporting voice cast also consists of Danny DeVito as a stray dog named Bob, whom Mack constantly demands to be thrown out, Helen Mirren as a poodle named Snickers, whom Bob fancies, Chaka Khan as a chicken who a baseball trick, Ron Funches as a toy fire truck riding bunny, Phillipa Soo (“Hamilton”) as a parrot with the obvious knack for mimicking humans, and Mike White as a ball-loving seal.
Yes, there animals have to be CGI, when we really want real animals with the peanut butter trick. And yes, there has to be some obligatory supporting animals who blurt things for comical appeal. But also, “The One and Only Ivan” has its heart in the right place by allowing the main simian to be smart and emotional, and by allowing kids and adults to see the sweetness and joys inside the main characters.
Rockwell carries the movie with his first-rate vocal performance; DeVito continues to charm us with how he voices his animated characters; Cranston overcomes his strengths and weaknesses as the ringmaster, Prince is both cute and wonderful as the voice of Ruby, and I was easily reminded of her performance in “The Florida Project;” and Greenplat portrays the girl with sincerity and courage.
In certain aspects, I was reminded of some family movies of its kind in the past like “Free Willy,” “Fly Away Home,” “Homeward Bound,” and “Babe.” All these movies, unlike “Dolittle” or “Call of the Wild,” give the main animal some dignity and strength, and they never glamorize them for profitable entertainment. Kudos to director Thea Sharrock (“Me Before You”) for delivering the goods by adapting K.A. Applegate’s book, which was based on a true story about a gorilla who was rescued by poachers, and discovered his artistic talents. The movie, now released on Disney+, closes with a little education on that true story, and we’re touched by it.
Available on Disney+