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What To Know About the Gorilla Who Inspired The Disney Plus Movie

You may be surprised to learn that The One and Only Ivan—a new Disney+ movie that began streaming on Friday—is based on the true story of a real-life silverback gorilla named Ivan. Of course, the real Ivan didn’t sound like Sam Rockwell or have a gaggle of adorable animal friends. But he really did have an interest in painting, and he really did live in a small cage in a mall for many years.

The One and Only Ivan—which was directed by Thea Sharrock and written by Mike White—was adapted from the 2012 children’s book by K. A. Applegate. In the movie, Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the ringleader of a Big Top Circus show that takes place in a mall. The show includes rabbits, chickens, seals, elephants, and, the headliner: Ivan the gorilla. (This was written before most states banned the use of large animals in circus shows.) Ivan, who is voiced by Sam Rockwell, has been in captivity so long he barely remembers what outside looks like; but Stella the elephant, voiced by Angelina Jolie, longs to escape. Much of that plot was invented for the book and film, but if you stick with the film until the end, you’ll learn about the real-life Ivan who lived in a shopping center in Tacoma for nearly three decades.

What is The One and Only Ivan true story?

While much of the story and side characters are made up for the film, Ivan the gorilla is based on the real-life Ivan the gorilla, who was taken from the jungle in western Africa in 1964 in order to become an attraction at something called “The World Famous B&I Circus Store,” in Tacoma, Washington.

Cranston’s character Mack is based on the real-life B&I founder, Earl Irwin, who purchased the gorilla for his show. The character is also partially based on the family who worked at B&I—the Johnston family—who took Ivan in as a baby and raised him like a son until he was three years old. At that point, Ivan became too big to handle safely, and so the family had him caged.

He spent the next three decades in the circus show, which really did include a baby elephant and a seal, as we see in the movie. (It also included bears and flamingos, which weren’t included in the film.) He took up an interest in finger painting, and for a while, his paintings were on display at the Key Center Library in Lakebay, Washington.

The real-life Ivan enjoying his new habitat after he was relocated.
Photo: Getty Images

Where did The One and Only Ivan live?

The real Ivan spent 27 years living in a cage at a shopping mall in Tacoma, Washington. In 1995, following a hard-fought campaign by animal rights activists and primate experts, Ivan was relocated to Zoo Atlanta in Georgia, where he spent the next 18 years.

Is Ivan the gorilla still alive?

Sadly, no. Ivan died at the Atlanta zoo in 2012, when he was between the ages of 48 and 50, according to a report from the Seattle Times. He had been anesthetized for a physical exam due to his declining health, and never woke up.

“He was a very special animal,” Terry Maple, the former Zoo Atlanta director told the Times after his death. “He lived a peaceful and happy life, and he lived a long life.”

Watch The One and Only Ivan on Disney+

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