Baby Gorillas Grow Up

A review of the One and Only Ivan

Disney’s latest animal tear jerker, The One and Only Ivan, is a mixture of briefly inspired moments and severely flawed thinking.

The movie is loosely based on the fortunes of a real life gorilla, Ivan, who was kidnapped out of the Congo and raised to be a circus attraction.

The real life Ivan grew up alongside a child who hit puberty around the same time as his gorilla buddy. They did everything together including motorcycle rides.

Baby gorillas are adorable, as are all babies. Then they grow up.

But, as the saying goes, kittens become cats, puppies become dogs, and baby gorillas grow up into 400 pound adults. No way can an animal that size ever convince humans that he’s no threat to the family. He’s going to break several lamps just on his way to the refrigerator.

Like the real-life Ivan, Disney’s Ivan ends up in a concrete cage, making daily appearances before a pre-internet circus crowd that can still be amused by exotic animals.

Disney’s gorilla does his best to give the crowd what they want. He rears up on two legs, roars, shows teeth, and thumps his chest even though there’s no occasion for such displays.

In one of the movie’s finer moments, Ivan privately asks, “Why do they want me to be angry?”

It’s a good question. In real life, male gorillas are not in a perpetual state of anger. It’s questionable whether they’re ever angry. Their dramatic displays of aggression are designed to scare off predators and protect the females and babies of their clans. It takes a human imagination to invest that act with a negative emotion.

And it should quickly be noted that, against the gorilla’s most dangerous predator, humans, these gestures are sadly futile. As I write, gorillas in the wild are being killed to provide trophies and trinkets, like gorilla hand ashtrays, and for bush meat.

Because, despite the millions of acres of food that Monsanto grows, somehow there are huge stretches of the planet where people are starving.

When not faced with a threat, male gorillas pretty much do what all higher-order male mammals do. They scrounge for food, contribute their DNA, accept a little post coital attention from their mates, nap, look smug, and take a distant interest in their offspring.

The Disney movie’s best accomplishment is the character of the circus master/owner, brilliantly played by Brian Cranston. His obvious use of makeup and a fake English accent, laced with bizarre rolling Rrrrs, betray his thinly veiled desperation.

Circuses that exploit live animals were never much more than sanctioned freak shows. They were not designed to withstand the internet age, much less competition with non-animal circuses like Cirque du Soleil.

Cranston adeptly renders the frantic business owner who is holding the financial bag for an industry that no longer has a market. He tries to brazen it out, even talking to his animals as if they understand him, and trying to pep talk them into better performances.

The circus master is also in the unenviable position of regretting his decisions while he is also trapped in the consequences of those decisions. His wife leaves him when Ivan progresses from adolescent to full-size simian.

His misguided affection for captive wild animals leaves him socially isolated from other humans. Though he is not an unkind man, his anger frequently taints his interactions with his menagerie, especially targeting the stray dog that befriends Ivan.

Let’s not get confused about what caused the decline of animal attractions like roadside zoos and circuses. Perhaps ten percent of the decline was rooted in human enlightenment about the plight of captive animals.

The other ninety percent of circus failure owes its demise to virtual entertainment. Sitting on a couch, beer in hand, binging on Netflix, beats sitting a hot, foul smelling tent, watching a depressed gorilla and a dying elephant slowly and sadly strut their stuff, ten days out of ten. Especially when the Disney channel is only another $7 a month.

Such attractions are slowly fizzling out, propped up by a few sentimental travelers whose main motive for buying a ticket is nostalgia for the days when this was a viable entertainment.

The movie Ivan buys his freedom by painting a landscape of a prairie. One astute observer understands this to mean that Ivan wants to return to a natural habitat.

This is where the movie takes a fraudulent left turn. Animals can’t liberate themselves. It takes humans to undo human mistakes. In real life, it was the the courage of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) who kicked up a fuss and got a better habitat for Ivan.

It took the courage of a few PAWS members who weren’t afraid to create conflict and make a scene to get Ivan transferred to a zoo. There, the real life Ivan’s story is more interesting than the Disney version.

Because the real Ivan, having been isolated from his kind for over twenty years, integrated himself into an established gorilla community. He even found a mate. In his last years, he overcame the handicap of imprisonment and led a nearly full life as a gorilla though he did not have offspring.

To suggest that, if they just wish hard enough, wild animals can improve their own circumstances is dangerous magical thinking. And movies that perpetuate that thinking encourage complacency among humans. Humans need to sustain a sense of outrage strong enough to act against animal exploitation.

The end of The One and Only Ivan is an unforgivable whitewash job. Ivan’s cell door opens to a vast and seemingly limitless African savanna. Ivan climbs a tree and there is nothing but wilderness as far as the eye can see.

Then his human visitors jump down from the boardwalk.

So, the Disney Ivan is really in a zoo. Just as the real Ivan ended up in a zoo in Atlanta.

Admittedly, a small landscape setting with others of the same species is better than a concrete cell. But to pretend that zoo animals look out on their surroundings and see a limitless preserve is shamelessly dishonest.

In the end, this Disney confection panders to one of the worst traits in humanity: the willingness to absolve ourselves of our crimes against wild animals.

Photo by Pixabay on

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