Ivan is a loving gorilla who lives his life inside a cage at Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, a circus-themed shopping mall. There are no other primates there; his only companion and best friend is Stella, an elephant suffering with an injured foot in the cage next to him. They have each other, but still they are lonely and feel hopeless that their situation will never change. The only thing that comforts Ivan is drawing. His pictures are of objects that he sees in his living space, like bananas. They are sold to tourists in the gift shop. Most of the people do not really see what is depicted in the drawings; they simply want to have a picture painted by a gorilla in their living rooms. Julia is different, though. This young girl visits with the animals every night while her father cleans the mall. She loves to draw and she understands the true messages in Ivan ’s pictures.
In the past, when Ivan was a young gorilla and a new attraction, there were many more mall visitors. This has changed over time: Business is slow and there is very little money coming in to care for the animals. To help the situation, Mack, the owner and manager of the mall, buys a baby elephant, Ruby. Although Ruby attracts new visitors, there is still not enough money to pay for a veterinarian to look after Stella’s injured foot. Stella, meanwhile, has developed maternal feelings for Ruby, having taken care of her from the very first day she arrived. Stella decides that she wants Ruby to have a better life than suffering in a cage day after day. Before she dies, she makes Ivan promise that he will get Ruby out of the mall. At first, Ivan has no idea how he will be able to fulfil his promise to Stella. But he continues to witness Ruby being mistreated and abused by Mack, who is only focused on saving the mall, and he realizes that he must find a way! He wants to bring her to a zoo, a place Stella often spoke to him about and that he has always imagined as a wonderful place. One day, Julia brings Ivan some new colours to use in his drawings and he finally comes up with an idea. He begins to draw many of his pictures at night and hides them so that Mack cannot sell them in the gift shop. Ivan then decides to donate his beloved stuffed toy gorilla and he fills it with his pictures. After he completes all of his work, he sees his chance. He wants to show his pictures to Julia hoping that she will understand, so he places his pictures in the correct order on the floor. The tension Ivan feels is unsustainable. Julia doesn’t understand at first and her dad wants to leave the mall, but suddenly, when Ivan has almost given up hope, she understands! She recognizes the zoo that Ivan has drawn.
It is clear to Julia that what Ivan has created is something special and meaningful and must be shared with the world. She informs the local newspaper and, not only the local news, but many other journalists write about “Ivan, the Gorilla that has been in Captivity in the Big Top Mall for 27 Years”. A public outcry begins, visitors boycott the mall and soon Big Top Mall goes bankrupt. As a result, Mack is forced to sell the animals and they come to a zoo where they live happily with other members of their species until the end of their days.