Dale Nauertz’s review published on Letterboxd:
My son, who is turning 8 in October, had been talking about this movie all week. Apparently, it was being advertised pretty hard on some app that he's been playing (must be the app on the phone he uses to play "Sonic the Hedgehog" because that game has become his obsession lately) so I assumed that he was excited to see it. So when we sat down to watch a movie as a family on Saturday night, I chose this one. I thought he would be excited about this choice...but just because he said that he keeps seeing the previews doesn't necessarily mean that he's jazzed to see it because he was somewhat bewildered when I said "I know you want to see this one".
I didn't know how this would go over because my wife...well, she doesn't like primates. Monkeys, gorillas, any manner of ape...they bother her for some reason. She's not a big fan of "King Kong", for instance. One time I awoke with the urge to watch Peter Jackson's version of "Kong", this was while we were still dating, so I fired it up while she was getting ready for work and she found herself getting drawn into it so she asked me to wait and watch the rest with her when she got home. I did so, but it turns out that she was only really interested in the Depression-era New York stuff. As soon as they got to Skull Island and met Kong she asked if we could turn it off. But that's where all the good stuff happens, and I was too sucked in to stop watching it by that point, so I told her that she was just going to have to suck it up and watch the rest. Anyway, she hates primates so I assumed that this movie about an artistic gorilla who headlines a circus that exists in a shopping mall might be an endurance trial for her. Frankly, I wasn't sure how I was going to respond to it either. But Bryan Cranston was the lead and National Treasure Danny DeVito does the voice of a cute dog so I was willing to give it a try.
Well, we all enjoyed "The One and Only Ivan". It is sweet and adorable and enchanting. It's a slight little film. The stakes aren't huge. It has some sad moments that we all found genuinely sad. The funny moments elicited genuine laughs. I liked how Ivan had suppressed his memories of his life before captivity and how those memories resurfaced at one point when he starts relating to Ruby, the baby elephant who is the new addition to this tiny circus and who prompts Ivan's jealousy and later his protective impulses when he makes a promise to a dying elephant (Angelina Jolie) to help Ruby escape to the wild. The film takes Ivan on an actual journey of discovery about himself, and I really liked that. Sam Rockwell does a good job as the voice of Ivan. Considering his recent roles, I was halfway expecting the gorilla to be a giant racist at some point, but thankfully that never happens. Ivan just rediscovers a passion that he had forgotten from his childhood, embraces who he really is, and helps everyone around him become better versions of themselves. Honestly, if more human characters in films had emotional arcs as strong as Ivan's, Cinema would be a lot more exciting.
"The One and Only Ivan" is something of a real movie, to be honest. It cares about the inner lives and goals of its characters. It is refreshingly character-driven and focused. There are some large laughs to be had and some moments that are somewhat moving (this isn't "Terms of Endearment" or anything, but it's nice). I loved the characters and the low key nature of the story. I loved Bryan Cranston here (he's always great) and the voice acting was good. The visual effects are incredible, to be honest, and that was one of the things I was most uncertain about going into this film. But the animals are utterly convincing and photo-realistic. This movie looks amazing. Plus, I liked the idea of a circus in a shopping mall. It was quirky and neat. This movie has to be set in the 1980s, although the film never specifies that, because the shopping mall not only has a circus but also a video game arcade and I haven't seen one of those in a mall in probably 25 years!
"The One and Only Ivan" won me over, as it did the rest of the family. It made me smile and it warmed my heart a little. My wife even liked it, despite the fact that the main character was a gorilla. It's charming and it's sweet and it's on Disney Plus.