A gorilla, separated from his home in the Congo, spent 27 years in a locked enclosure inside an American shopping mall as an attraction for customers. After a wave of campaigning by animal welfare organisations, Ivan was shifted to a zoo.

Disney’s new film, The One and Only Ivan, does one better. Here, Ivan is shifted to a sanctuary instead of a zoo. “The idea of the movie was that everyone deserves to live a life outside a cage so a sanctuary seemed more humane than a zoo,” screenwriter Mike White told Scroll.in. Directed by Thea Sharrock, the film is based on KA Applegate’s novel of the same name, which fictionalises the true story of Ivan. The film will be out on Disney+ Hotstar on August 21.

The performances are a combination of live-action and motion capture technology. Bryan Cranston plays Mack, the owner of the circus-themed mall where Ivan is kept. The animals include Ivan (Sam Rockwell), the calm and wise African elephant Stella (Angelina Jolie), the friendly stray dog Bob (Danny Devito), a snooty poodle Snickers (Helen Mirren), a baby elephant Ruby (Brooklynn Prince), the chicken Henrietta (Chaka Khan), and the seal Frankie, played and voiced by White.

“What I liked about the story was the theme of keeping your promises no matter what, love and loyalty, and how Ruby looks up to Ivan and Stella,” Prince told Scroll.in. Ivan, initially oblivious about the desire to be free, has a change of heart and starts to see things in a new light when Ruby is brought into the mall.

The One and Only Ivan (2020).

White had started adapting the book in 2014, just a year after its publication. For White, with several offbeat comedies as a screenwriter under his belt, The One and Only Ivan turned out to be the project that took the maximum time to reach the screen from paper.

“Working on something of this scale, you realise the time and effort it takes,” White said. “Although my comedies are mostly youth-centric, I do like all kinds of comedies. And working on this wasn’t hard, as Disney has their gatekeepers who guide you through the process, and they are so good at what they do.”

White’s writing credentials include a bunch of comedies featuring Jack Black: Orange County (2002), School of Rock (2003) and Nacho Libre (2006). Indian audiences who have seen repeat telecasts of School of Rock might recall White playing the role of Ned Schneebly, a mild-mannered rock musician and school teacher, whose identity Black’s irreverent rocker friend steals and turns Schneebly’s students into a rock band.

“Since the book already was so satisfying and emotionally rich, and it came in with characters with in-built personalities, my job was easy,” White said. “All I had to do was flesh out the smaller characters, find distinguishable traits for them, and give them character arcs. Add more comedy, some more characters.”

Creating animal characters and writing dialogue for them is just the same as putting in the work for human characters, White said, but the real challenge is “creating the animals visually, because humans walk into a set with their ready features and movements, but with animals you need to create from scratch”.

Mike White and Brooklynn Prince. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Internet Movie Database.

The link between the actors’ personalities and the animal characters is what charmed the 10-year-old Prince on the sets of the movie. “I want to be a filmmaker and seeing how our director prepared us, matched the animals with the actors, her vision was just so crazy,” Prince said.

In a very short time, Prince has been part of some acclaimed productions. These include Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), in which she played the central role. A couple of big-studio animated productions aside, Prince has also starred in a 2020 adaptation of Henry James’s 1898 horror novella The Turning of the Screw. The film follows a governess in a seemingly haunted castle, trying to befriend two spooky siblings, played by Prince and Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard.

For Prince, Disney movies and princesses have been a formative influence. “Mulan is an all-time favourite, but I also like Alice in Wonderland a lot, because it’s so curious and strange,” Prince said.

The cast of The One and Only Ivan (2020).