The One and Only Ivan: Book and Movie Review

I like to read most of the Newbery-honored books, whether they are winners or runners-up. So it goes without saying that I read The One and Only Ivan, the 2013 Newbery Medal winner. Last year, my middle daughter was assigned it for school, so I got to revisit it. Now, Disney+ is streaming the movie, adapted from the book.

When I first read the book, it depressed me horribly. Humans suck. At least, many of the humans that Ivan and his friends had met in their lives. I had to read it again to appreciate the positive humanity also displayed in The One and Only Ivan.

Ivan is a gorilla, who has been in captivity since he was young. His parents were killed, and he and his sister were shipped in a crate to the U.S. His sister died on the way. A man named Mack adopted him and let him live in his house, as if he adopted a baby. But as Ivan grew, he became more uncontrollable and too strong, breaking stuff, like glasses (46, Ivan counted) and furniture.

Mack eventually starts a mini-circus in a mall where he deposits Ivan into his new home, his cage, his “domain.” He also acquires several other animals, and at 2, 4 and 7pm, the animals perform. Ivan lives like this for 27 years. The remaining animals include an old elephant, Stella, a poodle named Snickers, an inconsequential bird, and a stray dog who sneaks in all the time. The circus is not drawing the crowds it once used to, and Mack is worried.

There’s a 10-year old girl named Julia whose dad is the janitor of the mall. Julia likes to draw, and so does Ivan. Mack even sells Ivan’s artwork in the gift shop for $20 ($25 framed). Julia gives Ivan finger paints and he goes to town.

Meanwhile, Stella’s foot is bothering her. It had been injured previously and just never healed right. It’s swollen, and Stella is in a lot of pain. George points it out to Mack, who says he’ll keep an eye on it, but he can’t call in a vet every time an animal gets sick because vets cost money.

Which is ironic, because Mack has just purchased a baby elephant from a failed circus. Ruby is going to be the Big Top’s salvation. Meanwhile, Stella just keeps getting worse. Stella makes Ivan promise that he’ll get Ruby out of there. That somehow, this silverback gorilla, will get the animals to “freedom,” which, for them, means the zoo they see sometimes on Ivan’s old TV.

As can be expected, Stella dies. My daughter bawled her eyes out. Ivan becomes determined to keep his promise to get the animals out of the mall circus. How he does that is something you’ll just have to read for yourself.

I just watched the movie The One and Only Ivan, available to stream on Disney+. It’s a fairly accurate adaptation to the novel. More animals are added to the Big Top Mall Circus, and Mack is made much more likeable. George is given a larger role in the movie; he’s not just the janitor, he actually helps put on the animals’ show, aiming spotlights and in general, doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.

Mack actually listens to George when he says he should call the vet about Stella’s foot. In typical children’s film, Stella’s death is implied by just having her disappear. And how Ivan gets the animals to the zoo is adapted and condensed, but the end result is the same. Happy Disney ending, just as in the book.

I’m glad that the book and the movie both pointed out at the end that The One and Only Ivan is based on a true story. The movie even has some real footage of a gorilla in a zoo, which I can only image is old footage of Ivan.

Both the book and the movie are good. My daughter that read the book watched the movie with me and said she cried throughout the book, but the movie not as much. I have to agree. The book was more depressing, but also teaches important life lessons, while the Disney version is a feel-good animal movie.

Want to read more about the real Ivan? There’s Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla in picture book format for younger readers.

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