Directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You); Adapted from Katherine Applegate’s children’s book by Mike White.
Just off a highway exit, the Big Top Mall is very different from other malls, mainly because it includes a circus run by showman Mack (Bryan Cranston) with a number of animal acts, including the headliner, a silverback gorilla dubbed “The One and Only Ivan” (voiced by Sam Rockwell), his elephant friend Stella (Angelina Jolie)and more. Things look to change at the circus when a baby elephant named Ruby (voiced by Brooklyn Prince) is introduced to the show in order to bring a bigger audience. At first, it works, but it causes concern among the animals, particularly Ivan.
[Caveat: This movie was watched on a laptop screen with ear buds, rather than in a theatrical setting where the work by everyone involved could truly be appreciated and analyzed.]
The key work done by Molly Hughes (art director on the last three Harry Potter films) is designing the mall circus where most of the movie takes place. There are a few other settings, but figuring out a way to make a circus work within the context of a strip mall and creating this general environment for the animals is crucial to the movie. It’s a fairly stark environment since Mack’s circus is about as no-frills as one can get, but because so much happens there, you really have to believe the idea of a circus within a mall. (Applegate’s book was actually based on an actual circus gorilla’s story.) We spend a lot of time in and around Ivan’s cage, and it’s hard to determine how much of that was built on soundstage and how much was created via CG, but having such an authentic environment does wonders to make you interested in Ivan and his animal friends. (Set Decoration was done by Rosie Goodwin.)
There isn’t a lot of flashy costume work for designer Jill Taylor (My Week with Marilyn) in this one, other than Mack’s stage attire as ringmaster. Most of the other costumes are for the humans that work at the circus or for audience members, all of which is modern everyday clothing.
Hair and Makeup:
Due to the lack of human characters, Graham Johnston (Gladiator, The Revenant) doesn’t have many opportunities to show off his skills, because the only time Bryan Cranston is obviously wearing make-up is when he’s putting on the show for an audience, although there’s a clever gag involving a wig that does surprise.
Obviously, when you have a movie involving talking animals, the visual FX are going to play a key factor. Some might think that being a family film mainly for kids, there wouldn’t be as much time or care put into creating the CG animals as with movies geared towards older audiences. Au contraire, Ivan and all of his animal friends all look incredible, and not just as typical animals, but as animals that emote and make you feel in other ways than just “Awww, how cute…” Ivan himself is a brilliant CG character on par with Peter Jackson’s titular King Kong or any of the animals in the Oscar-winning Life of Pi. The visual FX are that good, to the point where I was constantly trying to figure out if the dog Bob (voiced by Danny De Vito) and a poodle (voiced by Helen Mirren) were real dogs with their mouths CGed or were fully CG. Watching a movie like this, I had two fairly recent touchstones, Universal’s Dolittle and last year’s Dumbo remake by Tim Burton, and director Sharrock and her visual FX teams have found a happy middle ground where the animals exhibit humor but also deep pathos that’s about a lot more than the great voice casting. The emotions that come from Ivan will help to make both kids and adults immediately relate and be invested in his journey. (Real animal experts may feel like a younger elephant Ruby would walk or act differently than the older Stella, because she seems to only be a smaller version rather than an actual baby elephant.)
The movie’s real make or break moments, at least for the FX team, comes in two flashbacks, one involving Stella as a baby elephant in the African wilds, the other –which doesn’t work quite as well – involves using CG to de-age Bryan Cranston to be many decades younger. That technology still isn’t quite up to snuff to not make older actors look strange in younger form, but it seems like an easier solution than the norm of trying to find an actor who can pull off a believable younger Bryan Cranston, since he’s such a distinctive actor. It’s a relatively minor negative about what’s otherwise exemplary – I’d even say awards-worthy — CG visual FX-work.
The large team of visual FX artists that worked on the movie include visual FX supervisors Tony Como from Method Studios (Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker), Nick Davis (The Dark Knight) and more.
Normally, I would break down the cinematography in The One and Only Ivan by Florian Ballhaus (The Divergent Series) into how the lighting and camerawork are used on various elements or scenes, but more importantly, what it does is that it pulls together all the above creatives’ efforts so that the lighting on the CG animals and elements work fluidly with any on-set lighting on backgrounds and human actors. Other than the outdoor settings, which seem to be full CG, it does feel like Ballhaus had to work both on-set with camera and lighting but also consult with the visual FX team to make sure all of it matches up, and in fact, it probably helps make the CG animals seem even more real due to the use of light and shadow.
All aspects of the various sound departments were equally crucial in making the CG-hybrid nature of Ivan work so well. Recording the voice cast in studios and creating the proper ambience around them to match any on-set recording is key, but so is blending all these disparate elements and adding sound FX such as crowd noise to make you feel as if you’re really at the circus. Finding the right balance between the voices and music, to make sure the latter isn’t overpowering, also helps with creating a great overall tone.
Craig (Moulin Rouge!) Armstrong‘s score may seem simplistic and obvious at times, at least in terms of its themes, but when it needs to help drive the audience’s emotions, it really does that job impeccably. Ultimately, it’s a beautiful score that feels familiar but offers a nice bed for the dialogue between the actors and the CG animals without overpowering or trying to steal the focus of the storytelling.
The One and Only Ivan feels like a very well-defined step forward for Sharrock as a filmmaker from her feature debut. The movie as a whole is so dependent on the visual FX and post-production departments to make sure everything filmed on set is transformed into a piece of storytelling that can entertain kids, but can also stand up to the careful scrutiny likely to come from their parents. One can’t disregard the craft skills on display by Sharrock’s amazing team of creatives, and how great it makes what might have been a typical Disney family film look.
The One and Only Ivan will premiere on Disney+ on Friday, August 21.