Ferdinand is a big, scary, bull. So characters say (or act) in the Carlos Saldanha movie of the same name, which is based on the book by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Of course, he’s not drawn as scary character here, he’s drawn as kind of a big bowl of pudding.
Okay, so this makes some sense – people are naturally frightened by the notion of big bulls – they are powerful creatures, capable, as we see with Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena), of accidentally doing significant amounts of damage. This said, it must be reiterated that, especially when compared to some of the other bulls in the film, Ferdinand looks like a big bowl of pudding. Except when something untoward happens—like getting stung by a bee—he’s a nonviolent creature who looks nonviolent.
I stress this because it’s important. As a movie, “Ferdinand” makes little sense, and I’m not talking about the human-like actions of the creatures or their ability to speak to one another or anything of that ilk. Even accepting those basic elements, the movie leaves the audience with a quizzical expression, and this can easily be explained through the way Ferdinand looks.
Place Ferdinand next to his fellow bulls Guapo (Peyton Manning), Machina (Tim Nordquist), or Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) and while Ferdinand may be larger, he lacks their definition, their muscle, their obvious toughness, their anger, and any love of fighting they show (Guapo has some difficulty here as well, truth be told). If the humans are familiar with bulls and not oblivious, any comparison of the animals would easily allow them to see that Ferdinand is a reluctant bull at best. So… why then would he ever be chosen for a bullfight when the matador is looking for the best bull to go up against?
Perhaps I should step back for a minute and offer a little of the plot… Ferdinand is a bull who runs away at a young age after his father fails to return from a fight. He grows up on a farm with Nina (Julia Saldanha voices the young Nina and Lily Day the older one) and her father, Juan (Juanes). Eventually, however, he is recaptured and sent back to the same ranch on which he was a young bull. Although he doesn’t like such a life, fate pushes him inexorably towards the bull ring and a date with El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), the best matador in the land. Around that story are various other animals including Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a goat that wants to train Ferdinand; some hedgehogs, and some racist German horses.
It is an odd mishmash of ideas which don’t wholly gel. Even single sequences don’t always make sense. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) It is true that this is a kid’s movie and the slaughterhouse sequence features neither blood nor death, but exactly how one of the bulls present avoids such a fate is unclear. (END MINOR SPOILER) As for why the German horses are racist and toss in a bit about their genetics being pure? There is little in the film present to support any involved discussion. There is even less reasoning behind a dance off between the bulls and horses. It just kind of happens.
Not all of the odd moments in the film fall flat. Lupe’s desire to train a bull is funny as is a bull in a china shop joke. Additionally, each member of the voice cast—which also includes Anthony Anderson, Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and David Tennant—is fully committed to their role and John Powell’s score is enjoyable. That, however, is not enough.
The issues with the animation don’t end with Ferdinand not looking intimidating. While some close-ups are good, too much of the film lacks the finer details one would want to see. One memorable tree has designs on it and is brown, but has no identifiable bark. While certainly the designs on the trunk indicate the effort put into make the tree standout, the lack of bark (which may be a choice) feels off just as with some of textures on clothes, animals, and walls.
Those looking for a children’s movie with a moral will not be disappointed by what “Ferdinand” has to say on that score. They may, however, be disappointed with how it is all said. While individual scenes may not go on too long, the film as a whole plays out very slowly. Too many moments feel as though they exist less to advance the story than to extend the run time, weakening the overall tale and message.
While the book off of which the movie is based has been popular for the better part of a century, the film “Ferdinand” seems unlikely to find such longevity. It is an entirely forgettable adventure.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox