Ivan the gorilla
Ivan, a silverback gorilla who lived for 27 years in a Tacoma, Washington, shopping mall, chews on his finger at the Atlanta Zoo in 1996. Image Credit: AP

If you haven’t heard of the incredible story behind the ‘One and Only Ivan’ yet, you’re about to. Inspired by the remarkable true events that began in 1964 — and a popular children’s book of the same name — Disney’s latest live-action film tracks one silverback gorilla’s journey of self discovery, with a star-studded cast to bring his story to life.

But first, what is the film about? Animal trainer Mack (Bryan Cranston) is desperate to keep his dying circus afloat despite a dwindling interest from the public. The star of the show is Ivan (Sam Rockwell) a world-weary silverback splashed on the circus’ promotional billboards, roaring and thumping his chest on stage in front of a shrinking audience every night.

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Danny DeVito voices Ivan’s best friend, the adorable and snarky street dog Bob; Angelina Jolie voices the gentle and wise elephant Stella, a long-running member of the show; and Chaka Khan voices a small but mighty baseball-playing chicken, who doesn’t know how good she has it.

The One and Only Ivan
The One and Only Ivan Image Credit: Supplied

The film is an emotional, funny and subtle tale about cross-species friendship, the loneliness of captivity, the dangers of human intervention in the wild, and, ultimately, finding your passion and fighting for your freedom. Rockwell does a great job bringing Ivan to life… But, who is the real Ivan, and what’s his story?

Not many gorillas have their own Wikipedia and Facebook pages — but Ivan’s story was extraordinary, followed by thousands if not millions of people. Ivan spent 27 years living in a shopping mall in Tacoma, at one point even learning how to paint. It’s a story that would be considered bizarre an unusual for a human, but downright cruel for a 500 pound wild animal.

Ivan’s story began when he and six other gorillas were captured in the wild in Zaire, now the Congo, in 1964. They were ripped from their native land and sold to American businesses. All of the gorillas except for Ivan died in transit. (Female gorilla Burma died shortly after arrival due to pneumonia.)

One and Only Ivan
Ariana Greenblatt and Bryan Cranston. Image Credit: AP

Taken in by Ruben and Helen Johnston — and their 13-year-old son Larry — Ivan was raised nearly like a human toddler. His South Tacoma owners reportedly dressed him in diapers and spoon-fed him. But, by the age of three, he began to weigh more than 60 pounds (27kg) and it became too dangerous to keep him.

In 1967, he was sent off to live at the B&I Shopping Centre in Tacoma, Washingon, where he spent nearly 30 years in a solitary concrete enclosure measuring 14’ x 14’, where he was ogled at by human visitors. He was so attached to his teen companion Larry, however, that Larry had to sleep in a cot in Ivan’s cage for two-and-a-half months, separated by bars, until Ivan got used to being on his own.

Ivan got his name after the B&I centre held a contest to name him and one other gorilla. The rule was that the names would have to start with ‘B’ and ‘I’ and the winner would receive $500 for their efforts. Burma and Ivan were chosen

The One and Only Ivan
Bryan Cranston in the movie. Image Credit: AP

In his confined living situation, where he wasn’t able to interact with any other gorillas or even feel grass, Ivan eventually became withdrawn.

“We used to bang on the window and he’d bang back,” Donna Wetmore, a Tacoma resident, told the New York Times in 1993, at the height of protests and petitions demanding that Ivan be given a new lease on life. “But now he just sits there and looks sad. He should be in a zoo with a girlfriend.”

Protests for Ivan’s cause date back to 1987, when the animal rights group Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) picketed the mall and called for Ivan’s transfer to a zoo. They sued owner Ron Irwin under the endangered species act, though he argued that Ivan had been captured before the 1973 law was passed.

In 1991, the National Geographic Explorer featured Ivan in a documentary titled ‘The Urban Gorilla’, to show what solitary living can do to an animal like him compared to other members of his species living in the wild. Animal rights activists latched onto his cause and didn’t let go.

Even Michael Jackson got involved, lending international attention to the campaign. The following year, he singer offered to buy Ivan and move him into his Neverland ranch, which boasted 2,700s acres of space, and included a zoo with chimpanzees, zebras and even a lion.

Michael Jackson. Image Credit: AFP

After a nearly seven year campaign to free him, Ivan set foot on grass for the first time in nearly three decades on March 16, 1995, reports PAWS on their website. Because Tacoma’s zoos wouldn’t take him in, he was transferred to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle temporarily, before he was moved to Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent the rest of his days.

Ivan died at the age of 50 in 2012 during a medical procedure. That same year, a children’s book by the title ‘One and Only Ivan’ hit the shelves. Katherine Applegate, its author, had tried to meet the subject of her writing, but revealed to NPR that it was a tough job — and she never did end up saying hello to Ivan.

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“Ivan’s story was so compelling and so bizarre. The fact that he had been captured as an infant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and brought to Tacoma, Wash., to live in a mall? ... It was beyond comprehension when I first came across this story in The New York Times. The headline read, ‘Gorilla Sulks in [a] Mall as His Future Is Debated.’ This was about 20 years ago. They were trying to figure out what to do with this guy, and I thought, ‘There’s a story there, I just have to figure out how to tell it,’” said Applegate.

“I tried to meet Ivan. I went to the zoo. I took my 13-year-old daughter — she was about 10 at the time — and it was a very wet day. Ivan hated wet weather, and he never came out, and I sat there for hours in the rain, and my daughter was looking at me, going, ‘Are you crazy, Mom?’ ... I’d flown all the way to Atlanta! I was determined to see him! But at the end of the day I realised this guy actually had some control over his environment. In the old days would he have been able to go anywhere? To make a choice like that? And it was really validating. I was OK that he couldn’t come out. I did go to his memorial service later, though.”

Don’t miss it!

‘The One and Only Ivan’ is now streaming in the UAE on OSN.