Among the many challenges facing the filmmakers behind The One and Only Ivan was this: how do you get across a very important message about animal safety and preservation without making a movie that will scare off family viewers tuning in to watch adorable talking animals on Disney+? That was a question we brought up during an online press conference for the movie, which premieres on the Disney+ this week and stars Angelina Jolie, Bryan Cranston, Sam Rockwell, Helen Mirren, and Danny DeVito, among others. And it was a question that stood tall in Jolie’s mind after she decided to pursue the project as both an actor and producer after reading Katherine Applegate’s children’s book about a gorilla deprived of living in his natural habitat.
Recalling how she tracked down the movie rights to The One and Only Ivan, where it was already being made at Disney with screenwriter Mike White (Pitch Perfect 3) attached, Jolie said, “One of the things Mike did, that I think was very special, is I had seen it start to go down a road where it really started to become a light, fun, simpler story.”
“It’s not a light film,” Jolie continued. “It deals with heavy issues. It is charming and fun and full of life, but…I know this young generation is really very aware of what is happening in the world to our natural habitats, to these animals, what’s happening in the Congo and losing ground, what’s happening with the gorillas, the elephants. And they’re angry, and they want to really be clear about what kind of treatment is appropriate, what kind of captivity is appropriate.”
Despite being fun for the whole family, Jolie’s determination to make the discussion about what is appropriate for animal captivity is at the heart of the finished film.
The story behind the movie, or least its inspiration, is true. The film is based on a beloved children’s book by Katherine Applegate, who in turn was inspired by the real-life story of a western lowland gorilla that lived in a concrete enclosure in a mall in Tacoma, Washington for 27 years. Thanks to the efforts of animal rights organizations, the ape was transferred first to a zoo in Seattle and then Zoo Atlanta, where he eventually learned to live with other gorillas and spent the remainder of his life until his death in 2013.
Applegate fictionalized the story and changed the human characters, with Ivan and the other animals all performers in a daily circus show at the mall. She also told the story from Ivan’s point-of-view, as he and the other animals–including a new baby elephant named Ruby–slowly begin to realize that the circus is not the right place for them to live out their lives.
“One of my children read the book and said that they loved it,” said Jolie, who voices the circus’ elder elephant, Stella. “I read it, and we kind of talked about why it was special and why it meant so much to them.”
For White, retaining the spirit of the book while giving the story more narrative muscle was the most important aspect of writing the adaptation.
“I feel like I was really lucky, because the characters are so rich, and it’s so emotional and very soulful for a children’s book or young adult book,” said the writer. “I don’t how you would necessarily classify it. But, I think that it needed like a structure, like a lot of these adaptations, where you just need to make it have more of a plot, in a sense.”
Director Thea Sharrock, who is making her second feature film after 2016’s Me Before You, told Den of Geek she had her own concerns about the tone of the film. “It was a big concern from the beginning to try to not make it feel like a documentary. That’s been made already on the real-life story of Ivan the gorilla. Also, it’s not just any studio. It’s Disney. So we definitely knew that there was a tone that we had to get right.”
The director added that while a major part of that tone was getting the script right, it also came down to the movie’s visuals, including the enclosures, known as domains, in which Ivan, Stella, Ruby, and their other friends spend nearly all their time. “[I was] endlessly looking with the designer, Molly Hughes, as to exactly how the domains would work physically,” Sharrock said, “literally like how big the bars are so that on camera they would have the right feel.
“Obviously we chose very carefully when we came to edit it,” she continued. “Certain scenes there are no bars to be seen whatsoever. And in other moments we’ve chosen very carefully when the presence of the bars are there, so that they are a constant reminder. It’s not easy when your leading character is behind bars for 80 percent of the movie.”
Sharrock was also careful to balance the needs and themes of the story with the technical challenge of making a movie told largely through animals (computer generated, of course) who speak, feud, and joke with each other.
“Shooting this movie was very much like simultaneously working on two movies at the same time, because of the technical aspect of it,” she conceded. “But we wanted to monitor a) the humor, because we always wanted to balance it and keep that aspect going, but not to be afraid of connecting with the emotionality of what is a really very powerful story.”
Oscar winners Helen Mirren, who voices the poodle Snickers in the movie, and Sam Rockwell, who voices Ivan, agree that the story of The One and Only Ivan will not just have viewers rethink where they stand on keeping animals in captivity–even under kindly circumstances–but can make us ponder our relationship with nature itself even as the world continues to wrestle with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel we’re at the very, very beginning of our knowledge of actually how important the natural world is to us,” said Mirren. “And this COVID, for example, is an incredible lesson in that direction.” Rockwell added, “I think Ivan would definitely have something to teach us for sure about isolation. His real story is, if you’ve seen the documentary, really moving. It’s a heartbreaking story. So I’m sure that Ivan would have something to say about it.”
The One and Only Ivan premieres on Disney+ this Friday, Aug. 21.