I can see why people are all gaga over Ivan, the gorilla who’s the star of the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. Ivan is a sympathetic character, an artist, something of a stoic, and a good friend to Stella, the elephant, Bob, the stray dog, and Julia, the daughter of the night janitor for the mall. Ivan lives in the moment, takes life as it comes, and doesn’t worry over much. However, when he makes a promise to a dying friend, Ivan is determined to keep his word, no matter what.
I really enjoyed getting to know Ivan. And I had sympathy for his plight, a lonely gorilla who has nothing to do but watch TV and draw pictures to be sold in the mall gift shop. Ivan doesn’t feel sorry for himself, even though he has been living without the company of other gorillas for most of his life, the last twenty-some odd years. (The One and Only Ivan is based on the true of a gorilla named Ivan who lived for twenty-seven years in a circus-themed mall in Washington state and who now lives in the Atlanta Zoo.)
But honestly the whole “animals are people, too” theme was distracting to me. I think the author could have made us sympathize, even identify, with Ivan without beating us over the head with the philosophy that we’re all great apes, and animals are just like people (only they’re not really, are they?). The insertion into the story of animal rights rhetoric was intrusive and unnecessary. Animals are animals and people are people. People have a responsibility to treat animals with care and respect, and Ivan shouldn’t have been caged alone without other gorillas and without a natural habitat for over twenty years. The story of Ivan’s “emancipation” is a good one, even if Ivan is anthropomorphized a little too much. How else could he tell his own story?