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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 Jolie, Helen Mirren, Chaka Khan, and Danny Devito are featured.
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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 ...
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?
- On DVD or streaming: August 21, 2020
- Cast: Bryan Cranston, Angelina Jolie, Sam Rockwell
- Director: Thea Sharrock
- Studio: Disney+
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Book Characters, Wild Animals
- Character strengths: Empathy, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 94 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: mild thematic elements
- Awards/Honors: Common Sense Selection
- Last updated: March 19, 2021
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