The One and Only Ivan

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The One and Only Ivan Movie Poster Image
 Parents recommendPopular with kids
Big-hearted adaptation should please fans of the book.
  • PG
  • 2020
  • 94 minutes

Parents say

age 5+
Based on 16 reviews

Kids say

age 6+
Based on 23 reviews

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Kids will learn a bit about the way gorillas live, difficulties they face from poachers in their native Africa. Also about mall-based circuses and animal attractions. While movie downplays some of the animal abuse clearer in the book, viewers still learn importance of zoos without cages that focus on re-creating natural animal habitats.  

Positive Messages

Promotes loyal friendships, teamwork, empathy, perseverance. Everyone can redeem themselves for past mistakes. It's important to stay true to your loved ones, keep your promises. Encourages viewers to see beyond an animal's entertainment value, to take animal welfare seriously.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Ivan is a loyal friend, a hardworking circus performer, dedicated to Mack and his fellow animal clan. He grows to care for baby elephant Ruby, to fulfill his promise to a dear friend. Stella is a sage, saintly, wise elephant. She's always kind and loving, ready to comfort and console others. Bob is devoted to Ivan, is a funny and brave stray dog. Julia is a caring and intuitive child who loves the circus animals. Ruby helps others think beyond themselves and want to find a freer place to live.

Violence & Scariness

Ivan recalls how he was separated from his family of gorillas; the flashback shows how he and his father were separated from their clan, how poachers shot his father (off-camera, but viewers hear the shot). It's assumed the others were shot, too. (Less graphic than description in book.) Possible spoiler alert: Stella dies peacefully from exhaustion and her foot illness.

Sexy Stuff

"Humans are mean." Dog fart joke.


Mack drives a Mustang convertible.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The One and Only Ivan is based on Katherine Applegate's Newbery Award-winning 2013 novel about a silverback gorilla named Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), the headliner of a strip-mall circus act run by Mack (Bryan Cranston). Inspired by a true story, the movie, like the book, focuses on Ivan and his small group of fellow circus performers. Viewers familiar with the novel should note that there's actually less mention of violence on the screen than on the page. But a character still dies (peacefully, in her sleep), there's a scene of an exhausted and overworked baby elephant, and the movie includes a flashback to the terrible day when Ivan loses his family (the poaching isn't detailed, and while a shot is audible, that death happens off-camera). The story promotes getting circus animals out of cages and into more natural habitats at zoos and preserves. It also has themes of loyalty, teamwork, empathy, and perseverance. The voices of Angelina JolieHelen Mirren, Chaka Khan, and Danny Devito are featured.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byMumofSRM August 21, 2020

Slow and emotional

This was a very well made movie but not one we’ll watch again.

My 5- and 7-year olds found it a slow paced and started playing while watching it. More concern... Continue reading
Adult Written byMew_chan August 23, 2020

Lovely heart felt tale that had me in tears!

This is a really sweet story. I’m a bit of a kid at heart and love a well done animal movie so this ticked plenty of boxes for me and my 5year old - we both rea... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written byLemon279 August 27, 2020

Good movie they made it too child- friendly I think

That may not sound like a bad thing but... we’ll let me explain. Also, let me get this straight, it’s a good movie to watch with tour family, but since it is su... Continue reading
Teen, 15 years old Written byVulpixel August 25, 2020

Decent movie, misses point of book.

The One and Only Ivan was my absolute favorite book in elementary school. I’m pretty sure I cried reading it. The theme was animal cruelty. But more than that,... Continue reading

What's the story?

THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN is based on best-selling author Katherine Applegate's award-winning 2013 book about Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), the headline act at a mall-based circus run by ringmaster Mack (Bryan Cranston). The Big Top Mall features a tight crew of supporting performers, including Stella the sage elephant (Angelina Jolie), Snickers the acrobatic poodle (Helen Mirren), Henrietta the baseball-playing chicken (Chaka Khan), Frankie the seal (Mike White), and Murphy the toy firetruck-riding rabbit (Ron Funches). A stray dog (Danny DeVito) also calls the circus home, and the custodian's daughter, Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), takes a particular interest in Ivan, even giving him crayons and paper with which to "draw." To combat declining sales, Mack acquires a crowd-pleasing new addition: Ruby the baby elephant (Brooklynn Prince), who becomes the circus's new centerpiece. When tragedy strikes, Ivan is tasked with caring for Ruby and finding a way to set her free where she can at least see the sky and the moon, not just the concrete walls. His newfound artistic skills help him find a new path to freedom for Ruby and the others.

Is it any good?

This heartfelt adaptation is part circus comedy, part animal rights drama, and part escape caper, a combination that should attract the book's many fans, as well as families. Not only are talking-animal movies wildly appealing to kids, but Applegate's beloved (and bestselling) book is becoming a staple in elementary-school, public, and personal libraries, so many people are familiar with the story. It's always hard to condense all of a book's special moments into a 90-minute movie, but director Thea Sharrock, working from White's screenplay, captures the essence of Ivan and his pals' story. If anything, the movie is even friendlier to younger kids, since it downplays some of the animal cruelty and poaching that's more candidly described in the book.

The voice cast in The One and Only Ivan is stellar, with Rockwell's strength and stoicism shining through, DeVito's wit and sarcasm ideal for Bob, and Jolie's dulcet tones perfectly matching the wise, storytelling elephant's demeanor. Khan, Mirren, Funches, and White don't have quite as much screen time, but their supporting characters are sure to connect with young viewers, who are likely to find their personality quirks hilarious. DeVito's Bob, in particular, is responsible for all of the comic relief, while Ruby is just plain adorable. The live-action cast is well served by Cranston, whose Mack is generally a good man but can't see that even a safe cage isn't also a happy home. Julia, however, is almost too magical a child: uniquely perceptive, artistic, and able to translate the animals' feelings better than anyone else involved with the circus. Parents looking for thoughtful family entertainment with strong messages and endearing talking animals will appreciate this page-to-screen film.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role models in The One and Only Ivan. Which character strengths come to mind when watching the film? Why are empathy, teamwork, and perseverance important?

  • For those who are fans of the book: How well do you think the movie captures the spirit of the original story? Is there anything you missed that was in the book but not the movie? What changes did you prefer in the movie?

  • Why do you think depictions of talking animals are compelling to viewers/readers? What are some of your favorite animal tales?

  • Did the movie make you interested in learning more about the real Ivan? What about reading the book's 2020 sequel, The One and Only Bob?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love animals

Character Strengths

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Themes & Topics

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