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ivan the gorilla and mack the circus owner share a tender moment Image: Disney

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Yes, the sad animals of The One and Only Ivan tugged our heartstrings

The Disney Plus original movie is based on a book that’s based on a true story

At one point early in Disney Plus’ new family fantasy movie The One and Only Ivan, captive gorilla Ivan (a realistic CGI creation voiced by Sam Rockwell) and senior elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie) gaze up at the sky they can make out through the small window in their concrete enclosure, and talk about how pretty the moon looks, and how great sunlight feels. Then Ivan confides that he thinks it’s his fault that their mall-circus attraction has dwindled in popularity. As the headliner of the attraction, Ivan once commanded audiences’ attention, so now that the show isn’t as busy, he feels he’s not being as fearsome as the humans want him to be — and he questions why they expect that of him in the first place.

It’s a soft, emotional moment that speaks to the pain of captivity, without devolving into clichés like having the animals gaze fondly at pictures of the wild, or dream about running free. In fact, Ivan can’t even really remember what his past before living with humans was like, but he definitely isn’t content with his present.

Though the plot beats of The One and Only Ivan are predictable, given that it’s a story about sad caged animals, there’s enough genuine emotion threaded through the formulaic story to make the movie enjoyable, surpassing some otherwise cheesy moments.

[Ed. note: This review contains slight spoilers for The One and Only Ivan.]

stella and ruby the elephants Image: Disney

Directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You), The One and Only Ivan is a family film based on the children’s book of the same name by Animorphs author K.A. Applegate, who in turn was inspired by the real-life story of a mall gorilla (also named Ivan). Ivan the movie follows Ivan the gorilla and the rest of the animals in a struggling mall circus owned by the well-intentioned Mack (Bryan Cranston). While Mack tries to move the circus back to a financially viable footing again by introducing a baby elephant named Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), the animals dream of finding some nebulous satisfaction in their lives, which through the course of the movie ends up concretely shifting toward dreams of freedom in the wild.

Many movies depicting animals in captivity — especially in circuses — lean hard on the idea that returning to the wild is the best thing for the animals, by emphasizing small, confined spaces clearly devoid of proper enrichment. Free Willy did it in 1993, and Disney did it with the live-action version of Dumbo in 2019. It’s basically a given that the animals in The One and Only Ivan, who are not only in a circus, but in a rundown mall, will end up in a habitat that isn’t a cramped, concrete room.

To the movie’s credit, Sharrock gives this issue more nuance than, “People who put animals in cages are bad, and animals should always be in the wild.” Mack cares for his animals, and though his weaker moments depict him as a bit heartless when it comes to pushing baby elephant Ruby too far, it is clear that he’s just concerned that the circus will shut down, he’ll have to lay off his loyal workers, and he won’t be able to care for the animals.

Some dull, corny moments attempt to flesh out the movie’s minor characters, without building the story. The little girl who gives Ivan crayons and fingerpaints has a mom who is dying of a mysterious illness, for no real reason. Her father, who works at the circus, gets some overly sentimental, generic lines about how his wife has some “good days and bad ones,” and her illness is brought up from time to time, but literally adds nothing to the narrative. The girl exists to hand Ivan art supplies and inspire him to draw, so giving her a tragic backstory just seems like extra non-nutritional story calories.

ivan the gorilla and bob the scrappy dog Image: Disney

As for the animal side characters, Danny DeVito’s scrappy stray Bob is a particular delight, delivering funny lines, but also offering the unique perspective of a dog who’s chosen to be a stray. It adds more nuance to the whole captivity vs. wild issue, as Bob and fancy poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), both domesticated animals, take different stances, acknowledging that how they feel about living with humans doesn’t extend to their wild friends. Aside from the dogs and the elephants Stella and Ruby, however, other animal characters — like a parrot voiced by Phillipa Soo, and a white bunny voiced by Ron Funches — are only there for quick one-liners and their actors’ names on the billing.

Stripped of superfluous elements, The One and Only Ivan has a strong emotional core that circumvents its otherwise-predictable story. Ivan’s relationships with Stella and Ruby are particularly gut-punching, especially a promise he makes to Stella, which calls back to an earlier confession that he feels he has nothing to protect in captivity. It’s a heartwarming relationship. Glimpses into Ivan’s past after Ruby questions him, as well as his own insecurity around her stealing his spotlight, keep the tone from being too sentimental. The One and Only Ivan includes a lot of extra fluff — characters, backstories, one-line zingers, and more — in that the movie could do without, but there are also enough earnest emotional moments to save it.

The One and Only Ivan is now streaming on Disney Plus.