A Gorilla Never Forgets

The One and Only Ivan is streaming on Disney+.

Once upon a time, there was a mall, located in a faraway land known as Tacoma. This mall wasn’t the sort of mall you might have hung out at as an incorrigible youth. It didn’t have a food court. It didn’t have an Apple store. It didn’t have a mall security guard. It was not a gleaming bastion to capitalism.

Instead, this mall was…different. Instead of chains, it was a haven of small businesses. Some of them were the kind of places that sold incredible art or wonderful used books. Other were the kind of places that would sell throwing stars to an eleven-year-old. This mall was a little dingy, a little beat up. What it didn’t have was polish. What it did have was a gorilla.

If you weren’t born or didn’t spend a fair amount of time in the Seattle-Tacoma area, you might not be familiar with the delightful scuzziness of the B&I Shopping Center. Locals know it as a place to find hardware, discount luggage, and a vast assortment of fascinating oddities. Outside of the region, if anyone knows anything about the B&I, is that it was the home of Ivan the gorilla.

Ivan lived at the B&I for 27 years. He was a local celebrity, and after he was moved to Zoo Atlanta, his celebrity only grew. K.A. Applegate based a novel upon his story. Entitled The One and Only Ivan, the book shows Ivan’s perspective of the mall, the charmingly low-rent circus housed there, and the people and animals he befriended. Disney wasted no time optioning the rights, and they delivered a sweet-natured and perfectly inoffensive film adaptation.

We’re introduced to Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a large and laid-back silverback gorilla. He thinks his life is pretty darn good, all things considered. Home is an enclosure at the Big Top Mall, right off of Exit 8. He lives with his friends, which is even better. There’s the wise elephant Stella (voiced by Angelia Jolie), sassy chicken Henrietta (voiced by Chaka Khan), neurotic seal Frankie (voiced by Mike White), snobby poodle Snickers (voiced by Helen Mirren), bike-riding bunny Murphy (voiced by Ron Funches) and the parrot Thelma (voiced by Phillipa Soo). The wisecracking stray dog Bob (voiced by Danny DeVito) has taken it upon himself to be Ivan’s best friend.

They all perform, to the delight of crowds, in a small circus within the mall. Mack (Bryan Cranston) runs the place. He loves the animals and, along with his assistant George (Ramon Rodriguez) and George’s plucky daughter Julia (Ariana Greenblatt), the three of them try to give their menagerie a home.

It’s not easy, though. Ivan has been the circus’ headliner for quite some time. His name and picture are even on a highway billboard, and he’s used to stepping into the spotlight with a roar. Fame never lasts and the crowds have gotten smaller and smaller. So much so that Mack sees a day coming when the circus goes out of business.

Then, two events happen, both of them small and both destined to have a big impact. The first is that Julia leaves a handful of crayons in Ivan’s enclosure.* He regards them, then picks one up and proceeds to draw. The second is the arrival of Ruby (voiced by Brooklynn Prince), a preposterously cute baby elephant. Both moments will cause Ivan to question who he is and where his place in the world ought to be.

If you’re a relatively new parent or relatively young, there’s a good chance you read the 2012 novel The One and Only Ivan. That book focused on empathy toward animals and the responsibility we humans have toward them. The film adaptation sort of has that, along with a lot of other extraneous stuff I’m sure was demanded by the studio.

Thea Sharrock hasn’t made a family movie. She’s unapologetically made a children’s movie, and one with a gentle tone. Even in the slightly darker moments, Sharrock never allows things to get too dark. She loves these characters, and she takes the time to slow the pace down just enough to let us hang out with them and watch them interact. The bad news is, she’s working from a script that switches gears so often, it’s nearly impossible for her not to transition awkwardly between plot elements.

When it comes to Mike White’s screenplay, my critic sense is tingling. White is a smart writer, and the proof of that is his outstanding script for School of Rock. The main thrust of the Ivan novel dealt with the gorilla expressing himself through art. I suspect that a Disney executive thought that concept alone might be too esoteric for kids** and demanded something else. As a result, we have a script that ping-pongs between (takes a deep breath) Ivan’s concern about his place as the star attraction, his love of art, Mack’s worry about his small business, and a goofy subplot concerning the animals plotting to escape. It’s one more example of a studio buying the rights to a book that they love, then deciding that they don’t trust the strength of the concept after all. I imagine White received many, many notes on his screenplay, and there was only so much he could do in the end.

For the most part, we have a cast that’s mellow and firmly staying in their lane. When you hire Danny DeVito to play a wisecracking mutt or Helen Mirren to play a haughty poodle, you get…well, pretty much exactly what you’d expect. There aren’t many surprises; just a couple. The first is the restrained vocal performance from Sam Rockwell as Ivan. Rockwell usually plays excitable sorts. Here, it’s as if his heart rate is firmly at 60 beats per minute. He’s not dull as such, but his Ivan is calm. A bit less calm is Bryan Cranston’s Mack, who isn’t the villain of the piece. Mack loves the animals, thinks of Ivan as a son, and wants the best for all of them. He is the antagonist, though. Cranston occasionally shows us quick flashes of Mack’s worry and frustration. I appreciated the total lack of a “bad guy.”

If you’re a parent or someone with kids in your life, there’s minimal emotional risk in showing them The One and Only Ivan. The film is sweet, simple, and utterly Disney-fied. There’s a slight amount of thematic complexity to the tale, yet it’s not so complex that smaller kids are incapable of understanding it. The true story of Ivan the gorilla is more complicated, both bittersweet and hopeful. If you want to make a real impact on them, read up on what really happened and talk with them about it afterward.

*Yes, numerous people can get into close physical proximity with wild animals. No, it isn’t safe. My suspension of disbelief got a workout on that one.

**Which is a shame. If there’s one thing you can always count on, it’s that adults will constantly underestimate what kids can handle.

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