‘The One and Only Ivan’ Uses a Heartfelt Story to Explore the Plight of Captive Animals

The debate about whether or not it is ethical for animals to have to perform for human amusement comes to Disney Plus. “The One and Only Ivan,” a live-action family drama with CGI animals. Based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel of the same name by K.A. Applegate, the story centers on Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a loveable gorilla who has lived most of his life under the care of an increasingly opportunistic man named Mack (Bryan Cranston). Long resigned to living in captivity — he has repressed his memories of his early childhood in the wild until he is pushed to remember — the arrival of new blood into his mall circus and the death of a dear friend motivate him to seek a life outside of his cage.

Originally the adored pet of Mack and his then-wife, Ivan became the star attraction of a tiny circus Mack built around him once he grew too large and aggressive to live at home. The ringmaster went on to acquire other animals, an eclectic bunch that includes wise elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), pampered poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), rabbit Murphy (Ron Funches), parrot Thelman (Phillipa Soo) and seal Frankie (Mike White, who is also the screenwriter). Rounding out the bunch is Bob (Danny DeVito), a street-wise stray dog who serves as Ivan’s best friend and confidant.

While Mack is too wrapped in himself and his struggling business to give much personal attention to his animals, Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the young daughter of Mack’s employee (Ramón Rodríguez) is there to dote on them. Seeing the humanity in Ivan in the way only a child can, she ends up giving some of her art supplies, which leads him to develop his talents as an artist. But Mack, who can only see dollar signs, sets out to explore his gifts.

The other big change that happens is the arrival of Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), a baby elephant whom Mack purchased from a foreclosed zoo. The little one quickly bonds with Stella, but she never takes to performing, despite pushing from Mack. Tragedy strikes when Stella comes to the end of her life, and as her dying wish, she asks Ivan to find a way to make it so little Ruby doesn’t have to live out the rest of her days in a cage. 

Eventually, caring adults rally around Ivan, and the film reminds the viewer of the power of using one’s voice to champion the voiceless, an important message for children. Ivan’s painting spark a campaign for his freedom, something that is made all the more extraordinary by the fact that Ivan is based on an actual artist gorilla who lived in a cage in a shopping center for 27 years before a success campaign launched by animal rights activists led to his release to a large zoo with improved living conditions.

Overall, “The One and Only Ivan” is an ideal film for school-aged children, as they will easily identify with the character of Julia and sympathize with the animals. However, it’s too slow and meditative to hold the interest of those younger than that. The wacky antics are too few and far between, but viewers of all ages will be amused by the comic relief provided by DeVito, Khan and Funches.

The One and Only Ivan” begins streaming Aug. 21 on Disney+.