The Newberry Award-winning novel by Katherine Applegate becomes a heartwarming feature film in Disney’s The One and Only Ivan, premiering on Disney+ on August 21st. Inspired by true events, the novel and family-friendly film fills Ivan’s world with a host of lovable animal characters. Featuring an all-star voice cast that helps bring each animal to life, this PG film about a wild animal’s rightful place in the world will warm any viewer’s heart.
Ivan is a silverback gorilla and the star of the show at the smallest circus in the world, a permanent fixture at a stripmall run by his owner Mack (Bryan Cranston, Malcolm in the Middle). Ivan’s best friends include an aging elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie, Maleficent) and a dog named Bob (Danny DeVito, Dumbo). But his entire sense of contentment in captivity changes when a young elephant named Ruby joins the family and starts asking Ivan questions about what life is like in the wild.
The source material was inspired by true-life events of a gorilla named Ivan who lived inside a strip mall for twenty-seven years. Audiences won’t have to go looking for the full story as Disney kindly presents it as an epilogue before the credits start to roll. As touching and inspiring as the film is, the true story is the part where tissues are really required. Speaking of the credits, I know Disney+ likes to bump them to the side to offer a suggestion on what to watch next, but ignore that if you want to see a fun little post-credit tag.
What sets The One and Only Ivan apart from other films with similar themes, such as Mighty Joe Young, Free Willy, and even Tim Burton’s adaptation of Dumbo, is that the titular character is not only the lead, but the one most responsible for changing his destiny. By having the animals talk amongst themselves when people aren’t around, the audience is able to easily follow the artistic Ivan’s plan as he sets out to ensure a life of freedom and happiness for the adorable young elephant that joins the Big Top Mall’s circus.
One area of weakness is the film’s humor, which mostly panders exclusively to the youngest viewers. There’s just one moment of attempted comedy at a more mature audience, which is more of an inside joke for fans of one of Chaka Khan’s biggest hits (she voices a baseball-hitting chicken named Henrietta). But at the same time, the film never resorts to typical fart or poop jokes for an animal comedy, which I was very grateful for. Dealing with some pretty heavy themes, it feels like it needs a few more moments of genuinely funny brevity for a wide audience to balance it out.
Criticism aside, what you’re really left with at the end of The One and Only Ivan is a warm, fuzzy feeling. This story of a gorilla with a dream that comes true feels right at home on Disney+ alongside a growing library of great exclusive content. And if the film makes you feel compelled to dive deeper into the world of wild animals, there’s a ton of wonderful National Geographic programs on Disney+ to watch next.
I give The One and Only Ivan 4 out of 5 original art creations by Ivan for sale at the Big Top Mall.
The One and Only Ivan premieres Friday, August 21st, only on Disney+.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.