Can a gorilla ape Banksy? That’s the setup of Disney’s new animal rights flick, “The One and Only Ivan,” inspired by the true story of a silverback gorilla that spent 27 years intimidating children at a circus inside a shopping mall in Tacoma, Wash. In the film, he becomes politicized over his imprisonment and expresses his outrage through art. Directed by Thea Sharrock and based on K.A. Applegate’s Newbery Award-winning book of the same title, this retelling is candy sweet compared with the real Ivan’s cameo in the 1991 documentary “The Urban Gorilla,” which turned him into a 500-pound cause célèbre. This computer-animated Ivan is able to speak for himself (in the voice of Sam Rockwell). As legal efforts in Germany, Argentina and the Balearic Islands have established precedents that could make primate personhood a future civil rights fight, what’s the film’s ratio of fiction to fact? We answer this and other questions below.
Ivan resents the stereotype that silverback gorillas are angry chest-thumpers. Are silverbacks really the most violent species of gorilla?
First, silverbacks aren’t a species. Silverback is a literal description for a male gorilla whose black fur has begun to turn gray on his shoulders and spine, which happens around the wizened age of 13. Yet, while calling a human a “graybeard” or a “blue hair” is an insult, “silverback” is synonymous with “alpha.” In gorilla society, age equals status. Instead of reaching for the hair dye, a silverback enjoys the adoration of a harem of females, while lonely younger males skulk in exile. A silverback will fight rival troops and juvenile punks looking to seize power, but he’s no particular threat to humans.
Right, Ivan grows up liking his owner, Mack (Bryan Cranston), who takes him to the drive-in to see Disney-branded movies like “Robin Hood.” So in the ’70s, you could just adopt a gorilla?
In 20 states, you still can — if you get a permit. (Please don’t.) Baby gorillas weren’t as victimized by the primate craze of the ’60s and ’70s as chimpanzees and bonobos, when infant apes were raised like children by well-meaning scientists. Once grown, the confused animals were shipped to zoos and sanctuaries, where their own kind rejected them as socially awkward geeks. (Seek out the fantastic documentary “Project Nim” for the full tragedy.) “The One and Only Ivan” recognizes the Stockholm syndrome that arises when an intelligent animal bonds with its captor, in the absence of its own species. While the film gives its star a happy ending, the actual Ivan struggled to acclimate to his fellow gorillas at a zoo. Despite his prestigious silver fur, he was mocked or, at best, ignored, by females while caretakers gossiped about how rarely he got to mate. Primates raised in human homes also pick up human vices like junk food and alcohol; Ivan fiended for cigarettes. (Don’t worry, parents. Here, he’s only addicted to finger paints.)
Ivan wants Mack’s circus to make more money. Do gorillas understand economics?
Probably. Primates do understand currency. Chimpanzees have been educated to value 100-yen coins, which they exchange for apples. Capuchins introduced to tokens quickly learn to budget, gamble and plot a bank heist (in addition to reinventing the oldest profession). And once wild Indonesian macaques realized inedible objects hold value to humans, they schemed to steal hats, sunglasses and cameras, which they would ransom for crackers.
Those aren’t gorillas, though. Gorillas are great apes — shouldn’t they be smarter than a macaque?
Probably. Evidence is harder to obtain. Lethargic and less motivated by food rewards, gorillas are the bright slacker in the back of the class who refuses to take the quiz. For instance, while orangutans, bonobos, chimps and human babies have all passed the mirror test — the ability to recognize oneself in a flat image — gorillas are graded inconclusive. Their paranoia of aggressive eye contact makes them refuse to look in a mirror at all. The fictional Ivan’s ability to recognize his image on billboards and TV is singular, with one celebrity exception: Koko the gorilla, who snapped her own self-portrait in a mirror, a photo that became the cover of National Geographic. However, Koko’s achievements have proven to be singular and suspicious.
Fine. But can gorillas really paint?
Absolutely. So can cats, dogs, dolphins, horses, elephants, rhinos, giraffes, meerkats, squirrels, bats, lemurs, pigs, parrots, turtles, sea lions, snakes and cockroaches. While gorillas have not been observed to paint with mud in nature, as Ivan does here — and his climatic masterpiece, which recalls Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield With Crows,” is unparalleled — zoos have discovered that every creature is a budding artist, once there’s a brush in their mouth or ink on their feet. This explosion of animal-made abstract art — which might be likened more to the work of Franz Kline, Joan Mitchell and Wassily Kandinsky than that of Picasso or Pollock — is good for zoos’ gift shops. But is a gorilla consciously creative? Yes, in the case of (once again) Koko and her companion Michael, who both used sign language to give their works descriptive titles like “Bird,” “Toy Dinosaur,” “Stink Gorilla More” and “Pink Pink Stink Nice Drink.”