Ferdinand | Carlos Saldanha | December 15, 2017
Movie studios adapting childhood classic stories have been mixed. Yes, Disney has a monopoly on public domain stories, Sony has had fun with Cloudy with a Chance and The Smurfs, Dreamworks has milked Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon into franchises (the former perhaps being unnecessarily dragged out more than the latter), and Blue Sky Studios has had Horton Hears A Who and The Peanuts Movie … until now with Ferdinand.
Ferdinand, based on The Story of Ferdinand (which was previously adapted into an 8-minute Disney short film), tells the story of Ferdinand (John Cena), a pacifist bull roped into a bullfight with El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre), a top-notch egotistical toreador who’s promising one final fight. It’s a timeless story with an updated but still pertinent message, but it feels a touch more modern and with some unnecessary bloat (which works but is bloat nonetheless).
The film opens with a young Ferdinand at Casa del Toro, an animal farm in Spain, experiencing bullying (no pun intended) from his fellow young bulls over his horticulture skills, as well as loss when his fighting father (Jeremy Sisto) is selected to fight in Madrid and doesn’t return. Ferdinand runs away and is found by Juan (Juanes), his daughter Nina (Lily Day), and their dog Paco (Jerrod Carmichael). They have a calm two years, as a growing Ferdinand helps out with flower sales in town, but one day, Juan refuses to let Ferdinand (now a hefty ton) come into town to help. Ferdinand instead sneaks into town, only to be captured by animal control and sent back to Casa del Toro after the chaotic bee-triggered destruction of the annual flower festival and a China shop. There, Ferdinand is reintroduced to his former “friends” – Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), Bones (Anthony Anderson), and Guapo (Peyton Manning) – and some new barnyard faces – the lab-built Maquina, the Scottish Angus (David Tennant), the calming goat Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a braggart trio of German horses lead by Hans (Flula Borg), and a hedgehog trio voiced by Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Iglesias. To get home to his family and favorite cork tree, Ferdinand will have to learn to fight … or stick to his pacifist tendencies and escape.
If you couldn’t already tell, there’s plenty of added plot, from the family to the barnyard coterie. And it overall works to build the characters and setting. However, there’s a point where the additions get to be too much. It might be the dance-off between the horses and the bulls, the extended barnyard escape from Casa del Toro, the random inclusion of Tennant’s Scottish bull Angus (not that I’m complaining about more David Tennant screentime), or the chase sequence through Madrid – including a train station detour. Yes, you read that right – there is an animal dance-off; given the animal animation style, it’s hard to suspend the disbelief that both sides of the dance-off would be able to make some of those dance moves, especially the breakdancing. And that’s not to mention the vehicle use during the prolonged escape from the farm and through Madrid. As for the other additions, the humor is age-appropriate and not too reliant on puns and sight gags/bull jokes, apart from the China shop, some scatological and minor objectification/ogling humor from Lupe, and moments of arrogance-humor (if that’s a thing?) from El Primero. Hey, it’s for the adults in the audience?
As for some good things about Ferdinand, it’s all about the cast and the theme. The cast plays off each other rather well. Cena embraces his all-ages comedic chops, riffs briefly with Carmichael, and has good exchanges with the rest of the animal cast. McKinnon gets to ham it up a little as a wannabe goach (a personal off-the-cuff portmanteau of goat and coach). As for the theme, the film takes the fighting versus pacifism angle up a notch or two by tossing in some allusions to toxic masculinity (as told via bulls and bullying), missing father figures, and prejudice, all of which work in concert throughout the film as Ferdinand helps the other bulls realize there’s more to life than fighting and Casa del Toro.
There are other things I could nitpick if I wanted (like how the character design of the hedgehog trio Una, Dos, and Cuatro somewhat mirrors the aforementioned trio of Rodriguez, Diggs, and Iglesias, which didn’t sit too well with me), but I’ll leave it at that. Otherwise, on a technical level, John Powell’s Spanish flair in the score helps ground the setting in Spain, and Nick Jonas’s “Home” helps drive home the family-friendly aspect of the film with a pop hook.
Ferdinand took what was a straightforward children’s story, added some unnecessary padding that managed to work for the film, and held mostly true to the heart of the original story. Kids will enjoy it, and parents might get a kick out of Cena, McKinnon, Tennant, and some of the jokes that go over their kids’ heads. And, yes, it’s an adora-bull film.