Originally published in 1936, Munro Leaf’s story of Ferdinand will always be considered a children’s literary classic, and while the theme may be considered old-fashioned, in today’s climate it is incredibly pertinent. Ferdinand the bull is the story of a Spanish bull given two choices: to be a matador fighting machine or to be sent to the “chop house” as meat. Ferdinand’s gentle spirit and his strong sense of smell, want nothing more than a peaceful life spent smelling the flowers.
This new film, brought to audiences by Blue Sky Studios (makers of Ice Age and Rio), takes the relatively short and simple children’s book and develops subplots to give the story more heartstrings to pull on, including a deceased parent, bullying (no pun intended), and a child he longs to return home to. In the film adaptation, Ferdinand originally lives on a farm built to do nothing but churn out bullring fodder for matadors, where he is teased by other bulls for his kind heart. He ends up escaping to the Spanish countryside and grows up being cared for by a lovely family who wants nothing but Ferdinand’s happiness. Things take a turn for the worst when he ventures into town, seeking the smell of flowers for their annual festival, and is greeted by the true realities of his fearsome appearance. After causing chaos in the town he is sent back to the original farm he escaped from, only to confront his bullies with a more intimidating physique but an even kinder spirit than before. When a prize-winning matador shows up and selects Ferdinand as his bull, he must band together a group of misfit farm animals to find his way home again or fight to the death in the ring.
Running at only 106 minutes, even with the additional plotlines, there isn’t a whole lot to develop on with this lovable tale but the star-studded voice-over cast made it a decently enjoyable film for the whole family. There is a lot of warmth and joy heard in Ferdinand’s voice, ironically supplied by pro-wrestler John Cena, but the entertainment really starts with Lupe, voiced by the always funny Kate McKinnon, a “calming goat” who’s actually psychotic and dreams of coaching Ferdinand into matador-fighting shape. She gets the ball rolling with laughs and my love for Scotland had me giddy in my seat when a highland cow shows up on the ranch, voiced by the incredible David Tennant, who hilariously can’t see due to his shaggy unkempt highland hair. All of these, along with a Spanish trio of thieving hedgehogs are easily the most memorable characters that Ferdinand has to offer, providing the film with the necessary comedy to keep the plot moving.
The biggest frustration I faced was the inconsistency of dialects/accents used, or not used in the film; even with a plethora of native Spanish-speaking actors to choose from the cast doesn’t represent a lot of vocal diversity. While the movie takes place in Madrid, Spain, I would say 85% of the characters speak with no accent, and because of that those who do speak with natural Spanish nuances, sound forced or out of place in comparison. While it may not be noticeable to children, it very well might frustrate the adults who accompany them.
While not a “break-out smash” that studios like Pixar or Dreamworks deliver, Ferdinand seems to fall somewhere in the middle; with a funny cast of supporting characters, the film finds a way to promote being kind to one another as more common-sense without making it feel like a PBS special. Even though the film is predictable, the occasional adult jokes and loveable characters may not leave you red-faced from laughing but it might just warm the cockles of your heart.