Ferdinand is a young bull who escapes from a training camp in rural Spain after his father never returns from a showdown with a matador. Adopted by a girl who lives on a farm, Ferdinand's peaceful existence comes crashing down when the authorities return him to his former captors. With help from a wisecracking goat and three hedgehogs, the giant but gentle bovine must find a way to break free before he squares off against El Primero, the famous bullfighter who never loses.
1 hour 47 minutes
December 15, 2017
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Writers: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, Brad Copeland
Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, Peyton Manning, Gina Rodriguez, Miguel Ángel Silvestre, David Tennant
What? You’re actually here? You actually have more than a fleeting interest in this movie of all things this week? Not only that, but you’re interested in what someone else has to say about it? You’re a strange one, dear reader. Alright, let’s do this.
Violence/Scary Images: Whether or not Ferdinand can–or should–compete in the violent Spanish sport of bullfighting is the movie’s central question, and the final scenes take place in a bullfighting ring during a match. Ferdinand is slashed and threatened with spears; he also gores a bullfighter and sends him flying into the air (no blood; the man appears shortly after, unharmed). Ferdinand’s friends grimly sum up what happens to bulls: Either they die in the ring or go to the “chop shop.” Heroic characters talk about fighting for “glory.” At one point, Ferdinand’s dad leaves for a match and never returns, leaving Ferdinand to call after him and weep. In several scenes, Ferdinand runs amok after being frightened or hurt; he knocks things over and butts people with his horns; at other times, Ferdinand protects smaller animals and a baby.
Language/Crude Humor: Some crude humor, as when Lupe says that a group of bulls will be so surprised to see Ferdinand that they’ll “fertilize the lawn.”
Sexual Content: Lupe the Goat has a few lines with mild innuendo: e.g., looking over Ferdinand’s bottom, she says, “A plus on the flank, mama likey!” in an admiring way.
Drug/Alcohol Use: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Themes: None.
Positive Content: Ferdinand is a gentle and loving bull; he has obstacles but finds a way to get around them without compromising his principles. Nina is a human girl who has a tender relationship with him and accepts him as he is. Lupe, Ferdinand’s “calming goat,” is a daffy underdog who sees in Ferdinand her chance to back a winning horse, and she’s a loyal friend. The largely male cast does include some stereotypes, such as Valiente, an aggressive bull voiced by an Italian actor with “tough guy” intonations, and a trio of high-stepping horses who have German accents and snooty “Euro” mannerisms.
Ferdinand’s refusal to fight in the ring and his confidence in his nonviolent stance sends a strong message of individuality. He learns how to work out his problems without fighting through quick and innovative thinking, as well as kindness and humor. His fellow animals often call him things like “soft” or “flower boy,” which implies that he’s somehow weak or unmasculine. While these messages are subverted by the movie’s ending–Ferdinand is clearly a strong character–they may still have an impact on young viewers. Themes include compassion and courage.
It’s not too difficult to tell when a distributor has little to no faith in the movie its distributing. Back when Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was being released, I chuckled under my breath about any other movie that was foolish enough to be released on or anytime soon after what was inarguably the biggest film event of that year. Lo and behold the box office flop (as well as a critical disaster) that was Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, a film released the day of the Force Awakens and subsequently died the death of obscurity in less than a fortnight. A similar fate seems to have befallen the latest release from the animation team of Blue Sky Studios, Ferdinand, which was likewise released the same day as Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The key difference? Ferdinand is actually has something going for it on net balance.
Yes, it is unfortunate that we will probably only cross paths with this film at the Wal-Mart bargain bin since, while it’s no achievement like what’s been on offer from our friends Pixar or Laika in recent years, this film adaptation of the 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand has at least a heart and success in its own right, however meager it may be. The central conceit of the story is that of a bull who’d rather sit under a tree and sniff flowers than engage in the barbaric savagery of the bullfight arena. The conceit is not lost here at all, even in the face of the remarkably gentle and winsome vocal performance of WWE star John Cena as the title character.
The overarching plot here is not at all unfamiliar, with the central character non-violently working against what society deems to be his purpose to pursue his own passions. This was done far better in The Iron Giant, but finds parallels in animated works from Ratatouille to Shark Tale all the way back to Disney’s own Oscar-winning short adaptation of The Story of Ferdinand as well as The Reluctant Dragon, another early Disney short. That such stories have such a long lifespan and enduring social resonance across generational gaps is not to be ignored, and there is a great deal of value to such stories that encourage resistance to bullying and peer pressure. What better way to do that than with a story about literal bulls?
Ferdinand himself is one of many other bulls being herded at the Casa del Toro ranch in Spain to be trained for the bullfighting arena. His peers and their fathers demonstrate their strength and brawn for selection to face the matador, which is believed to be the only chance for bulls to have some of the good life so long as they are victorious. As expected, the motley crew of ragtag bulls (heifers are inexplicably absent in this world) that Ferdinand is hobbled with do their darndest to not only prove their own mettle but deride any dissenters to the status quo, with Ferdinand being public enemy number one in this regard. When Ferdinand’s father is selected for the bullfighting arena and doesn’t return, Ferd himself escapes the ranch and winds up in the loving arms of a young girl named Nina (Lily Day) who cares for him throughout his formative years in a way that reminded me of Simba’s time with Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King.
Soon, Ferdinand grows to an enormous size even by bull standards and once again forgoes a set expectation for an animal of his sort that culminates in a literal “bull in a china shop” scene that is one of the most handily sustained bits of physical slapstick that I’ve seen in recent years. This mishap lands Ferdinand right back at the Casa del Toro with a brigade of old and new side characters to play off of. The crowning jewel is arguably the irascible “calming goat” Lupe (Kate McKinnon) who is anything but calm. Operating ostensibly as something of a bullfighting coach to the title character, she joins the ranks of Robin William’s Genie and Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory as the comical side character who steals every scene available to steal. If her nutsy facial expressions and charming design don’t sell, her robust physicality and hard-hitting quips will. In fact, the character design and animation on display here overall are quite possibly some of Blue Sky’s finest.
Despite the fact that this film will inevitably get overshadowed as everyone rushes to get their Star Wars fix, I cannot in honesty say that it is in any way disposable. It could be argued that there are too many characters milling about here, but they are unique enough that the cast doesn’t feel overcrowded in the same way that it did in Illumination’s The Secret Life of Pets. Guapo (Peyton Manning) is an incessantly naïve red and black bull who suffers from panic attacks. Angus (a hilarious David Tennent) is an orange bull initially suffering from visual impairment and is too Scottish for his own good. The hefty Anthony Anderson voices the scrawny bull named Bones, and Bobby Cannavale gives voice to the self-declared alpha of the group, Valiente. I got quite a few laughs out of the silently intimidating Maquina (Tim Nordquist) who was, we are told, created in a lab and given the nickname “Frankenbull” as a result.
Pushing the cast to the point of excess were two other groups of comic relief characters, one being a band of hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Iglesias) who functionally operate in a manner virtually identical to that of the Penguins from Dreamworks’ Madagascar. The other being a trio of fancy show stallions (Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe, and Sally Phillips) with hilariously forced German accents providing some of the funniest banter and witticisms in the movie (their idea of an A grade insult to a bull is “I bet his parents aren’t even related!”). Regardless of whether or not these characters are functionally necessary, they earn their keep by providing some laughs.
Much like the aforementioned Iron Giant, Ferdinand as a film has some incredibly dark thematic strains lingering about its humor. There’s a scene later in the film during a moment of epiphany for our hero that finds the equivalence to similar scenes from The Fox and the Hound and Ratatouille; one that paints the whole ambition of the bull’s community in a shroud of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” fatalism. This aura of darkness is remedied by a comical reversal of roles between predator and prey in the climax to the film and leads to a large dose of redemption for all. The issue I took with this, and the film as a whole, is that the constant reflex to tide over the difficult subject matter with saccharine playfulness undermines the effectiveness of the plot, making it far less memorable. This is the age of Pixar and Dreamworks and post-Renaissance Disney. Family films are allowed and encouraged to have a bite to them.
In addition to that shortcoming, the film’s pacing overall is rather aimless and slapdash with pop music diversions interrupting a narrative that was carrying on somewhat gracefully. Some have also voiced the understandable disappointment that a film set in rural Spain was not allowed to be as definitively Spaniard in its location and cultural milieu as Pixar’s Coco was definitively Mexican in the same. Aside from some painterly shots of the Iberian topography, at times I was confused whether we were in rural Spain or a ranch somewhere in southwestern Texas. By contrast, another reviewer noticed that even the recycling bins in the scenes located in Madrid are the correct shade of orange. Far out.
But ultimately, what kills Ferdinand as a production is its timing of the release. It’s clear 20th Century Fox (which ironically just recently got devoured by the Mouse) had little faith in this film, and so threw it to the lion’s den of competing with The Last Jedi. It’s nothing remarkable or memorable, so there may be some reason behind that choice of disposing of it. Still, it wounds me at least a little bit to see even a meager work like this neglected. While it’s nothing life-changing or very poignant even when it can be, what it can do has its place when we get around to it. There’s just this death star-sized obstacle in the way we gotta deal with first.
+ Very impressive voice acting
+ Stellar character animation
+ Visually fetching scenery
- Sense of place is inconsistent
- Doomed to failure