The One And Only Ivan: Never as good as a film featuring Chaka Khan as a chicken should be

Review: There are too many subplots for the film to coalesce into a satisfactory movie

The One and Only Ivan
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Director: Thea Sharrock
Cert: Club
Genre: Family
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Brooklynn Prince, Ramón Rodríguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Chaka Khan, Ron Funches, Phillipa Soo, Mike White, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins

Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell) is a silverback gorilla and the supposedly terrifying headliner at the rinky dink Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. His cramped confines are cheered by his best friends, Stella (Angelina Jolie), an ageing elephant, and Bob (Danny DeVito), a street dog.

When a baby elephant named Ruby (The Florida Project’s Brooklynn Prince) is unveiled as the mall circus’s newest attraction, Ivan loses top billing to the newcomer. “You’re not terrifying,” Ruby tells the primate between excited requests for bedtime stories. An ailing Stella requests that Ivan take care of Ruby and, more specifically, that he delivers her from the circus life.

“But I wouldn’t last two minutes in the wild,” protests Helen Mirren’s performing poodle. “No blow dryers.”

Adapted from the 2012 Newbery Prize winning children’s novel written by KA Applegate and illustrated by Patricia Castelao, The One and Only Ivan features some lively one-liners and the starriest voice cast of the year. But it’s never as good as a film featuring Chaka Khan as a chicken ought to be.


Mike White’s script deftly works in various back stories: Bob was “abandoned in the streets by a mean human being” and Ivan has a past to rival the unfortunate protagonist of James Marsh’s Project Nim. There are, however, too many diversions and subplots for the film to coalesce into a satisfactory movie shape. “I wish I could help my mom,” Ivan’s small human friend Julia (Ariana Greenblatt) reminds the viewer over an hour into the movie, a detail that has long been eclipsed by other events.

There’s an indecision, too, around certain characters. Everyone is too nice. The film can’t decide how villainous Bryan Cranston’s ringmaster is supposed to be, nor even how grumpy Ivan is supposed to be. Glossy visuals, photorealistic CG animals, and a schmaltzy score fail to produce even a synthetic lift.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic