Ferdinand is a lively, animated film adaptation of Munro Leaf’s classic children’s book. The story concerns the title bull (voiced by John Cena), who would rather smell flowers than fight. Such behavior is, of course, against a bull’s nature, which means Ferdinand gets bullied by the nasty Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), because it is in a bull’s nature to bully.
That this film, directed by Carlos Saldanha, never hits young (or old) viewers over the head with its “be yourself” message is to Ferdinand’s credit. The film also never wears out its welcome. The film’s characters are engaging, the action sequences amusing, and the 32-page children’s book never feels stretched too far or two thin.
The story begins after young Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) is taken away from Casa del Toro to go fight against a matador. When his father does not return, Ferdinand escapes, finding refuge in a farm run by Nina (Lily Day) and her father. While Ferdinand is gentle and loving, his “ginormous” size is threatening to anyone who doesn’t know him, and that means everyone. After he accidently wrecks havocs at a local flower festival — and endangers a baby in the process — Ferdinand the bull enters a china shop, where his tail is inadvertently used to clean the merchandise. Before long, the “beast” is captured and returned to Casa del Toro.
And it is at Casa del Toro where a matador, El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) wants to select a bull for his last great fight. While Ferdinand wants to pass on being violent, Lupe (Kate McKinnon), his “calming goat” is hoping to train him for battle. While Ferdinand makes a plan to escape, other situations arise that create complications.
Ferdinand may not prompt young viewers to become vegetarians or animal rights activists because this PG-rated film’s scenes in the “chop shop” (slaughterhouse) provide more comic action than gore. Moreover, the bullfighting scenes are without any harm to the animals (or people). The film instead milks laughs from silly bits like a dance off Ferdinand and his fellows bulls have against a trio of prissy German show horses who spot bad puns like, “I’ve fallen and can’t giddy-up!”
The film also features several manic sequences from the aforementioned flower festival fiasco to a breakneck car chase that will delight young viewers. Even the big musical number, “Home,” sung by Nick Jonas, is agreeable without being cloying. Better yet, Ferdinand is almost entirely free of crude humor, which helps make it a breezy 106 minutes.
Cena is perfectly cast in the title role, and Kate McKinnon steals her scenes as Lupe, the wisecracking calming goat. Other characters, such as the prissy horses, or a trio of thieving hedgehogs offer fine comic support.
Ferdinand creates just enough drama without becoming too intense for young viewers. It is also just clever enough not to be too boring for adults.
Ferdinand opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.