Let’s be honest – if someone told you the plot of new Disney+ film The One and Only Ivan, about a gorilla who learns how to paint and attempts to escape captivity, you’d be very unlikely to think it was based on a true story.
But believe it or not, although the film has obviously taken a few dramatic liberties, it actually is inspired by real life – telling the tale of a gorilla who was a major attraction at a shopping mall in the state of Washington.
The gorilla, who was called Ivan in real life just as he is in the film, was captured along with his twin sister as an infant in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and transported to the US.
Although his sister sadly died en route, Ivan was adopted by a department store owner and raised as a pet – until the time came where he was simply too large to be kept in a home and he was moved to a department store in Tacoma, Washington, which also housed all sorts of other animals.
He spent the next 27 years at the circus-themed mall – and was known for smoking and eating hamburgers – but although he was originally a popular attraction, public perception soon changed on the ethics of keeping a gorilla in captivity with no one else of his species.
After a TV show titled The Urban Gorilla shone a light on the situation, a movement to free Ivan gained traction – with children sending letters to his owners – and eventually in 1995 he was moved to Zoo Atlanta in the state of Georgia, after the mall at which he was being kept went bankrupt.
Following the move Ivan lived contentedly with other gorillas and became a star attraction of the Zoo, and did indeed become known for his paintings, until he passed away at the age of 50 in 2012.
The story inspired author Katherine Applegate to write the book The One and Only Ivan, on which the film is based – proving that sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction.