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Review: Ferdinand

March 12, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

I recently came across a new edition of Munro Leaf’s famous 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand while in a store, and decided to look through it.  It’s a short book, perfectly formatted for young readers, so I had time to read it cover to cover in only a few minutes.

I do have vague memories of the book being read to me as a child, and I was certainly very familiar with the story itself about a bull who would rather sniff the flowers instead of fighting.  But what struck me while reading it again, after having seen this Oscar-nominated animated film adaptation, is just how well the movie captures the spirit and themes of the original story.

Yes, the story has been fleshed out to feature length, and updated for modern sensibilities with new animal sidekicks and plenty of slapstick, including a trio of dancing horses, but the essence of it remains the same.  The peaceful message of Ferdinand is still very much intact, and there is a gentleness to how the character of Ferdinand (John Cena) is depicted in the film that absolutely fits with how he first appeared in the book.  The result is another brightly animated winner from Blue Sky Studios, and one of the better animated films from last year.

The story begins with Fedinand as a young calf living at a ranch in Spain called Casa del Toro, and his father (Jeremy Sisto) is a prized fighting bull, a slight change from his mother who took care of him in the book.  Ferdinand is quiet and shy, and prefers to tend to his flower, as the other bulls roughhouse and play fight in the yard.  When he escapes from the ranch, he is taken in by a young girl named Nina (Lily Day), who raises him to adulthood as a domesticated pet.

But after an incident at a flower festival in town, where he panics after being stung by a bee, Ferdinand is recaptured and brought back to Casa del Toro.  It’s here that he reunites with the bulls he grew up with, and also meets Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a “calming goat” who is tasked with keeping the bulls calm, but is herself somewhat jumpy and neurotic and fashions herself as a sort of life coach.  With the help of his newfound friends, Ferdinand plots an escape plan, lest he be tortured in the ring and forced to fight, or worse, face the same fate as other bulls who are deemed not strong enough.

The film is entertaining and at times very funny, including an inspired “bull in a china shop” extended gag, and an amusing trio of hedgehog sidekicks named Una (Gina Rodriguez), Dos (Daveed Diggs) and Cuatro (Gabriel Iglesias), whose companion Tres is missing in action.  But it’s in the more dramatic moments that Ferdinand really leaves its mark.  The film is actually surprisingly thoughtful and at times even a bit somber in its exploration of the cruelty that goes into bullfighting, including a harrowing and visually impressive climactic sequence in a slaughterhouse.

The film pulls off the tricky balance between paying tribute to Spanish culture, while also being critical of bullfighting itself and showing the cruelty of the sport, albeit doing so in a family friendly way.  It does a commendable job of balancing the more cartoony action scenes with showing the harsh realities of what these animals are forced to go through.  The book’s pacifistic, anti-violence message is still very much intact, and Ferdinand’s climactic stand down in the ring with famed matador El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silcestre), one of the defining moments in the book, has been brought to screen in a genuinely touching and emotionally resonant way.

While Blue Sky Studios is perhaps best known for their profitable Ice Age series, the animation house has also carved out a nice name for itself with more unique works like The Peanuts Movie and Horton Hears a Who!, which remains the best feature length adaptation of a Dr. Seuss story.  The style of Ferdinand most obviously recalls their Rio films, both in the look of the characters and the animal rights message, and it shares a director with them in Carlos Saldanha.  There is a softness to the animation and colours of the film that really fits with the gentle nature of the title character.

The film is carried by appealing voice work from John Cena, who really embraces the role of Ferdinand, and he is a perfect fit to play an imposingly sized figure who is actually a big softie on the inside.  He is nicely matched by Kate McKinnon, who provides some wonderful comic relief as the scrappy calming goat.  This is ultimately an enjoyable and surprisingly heartfelt film that does justice to the classic story, boasting likeable characters and a strong anti-bullfighting message.

Ferdinand is being released on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.

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