Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand was an instant smash upon its publication in 1936, even outselling Gone with the Wind and becoming the year’s best seller in the United States. Still, the slim volume hardly seems to have enough meat to facilitate a feature-length effort. However, there’s no revenue stream that Hollywood won’t milk, and the people who brought us the Ice Age franchise have found a way of taking a book that was once burned by the Nazis as propaganda and turning it into a safe and simple family film that goes out of its way to place its bull protagonist into a literal china shop.
Though he is being trained to take on Spain’s toughest matadors, Ferdinand (John Cena) much prefers the life of pacifist, smelling flowers and cozying up to humans as a house pet. Unfortunately, he winds up in Casa del Toro, where he is pushed to be a fighter and ridiculed by the other bulls (Bobby Cannavale, Peyton Manning, Anthony Anderson, and David Tennant). From there, he is left with two options: tap into his aggressive instincts or figure out a way to escape captivity.
Ferdinand has moments of genuine laughs, boasting both sustained comedy set pieces and jokes that are meant to keep the parents occupied. It also makes the most of its talented cast, from Cena, whose voice is imposing enough to be believable as belonging to a giant bull but also able to sound sweet-natured, to a clearly ad-libbing Kate McKinnon, who is doing what she does best. That being said, the script has a ‘throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks’ approach to comedy, and there is a lot of dead weight. Prepare for a wave of groans when the movie dusts off Los del Río’s “Macarena,” a twenty-two-year-old reference that is somehow meant to amuse seven-year-old viewers.
To the movie’s credit, Ferdinand is tactful in a way that’s appropriate for kids, but it doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality. As we are reminded by the looming, macabre subtext, if these bulls aren’t tough enough to fight to the death in the arena, they get shipped off to the slaughterhouse. This horribly tragic and morbid existence breeds a culture of toxic masculinity that all of our heroes must learn to overcome in their own way. It’s a story we’ve seen time and time again, playing up the ‘you don’t have to follow the path that was chosen for you’ narrative, but here it is far more graceful and charming with the thematic hurdles than you would expect it to be.
It’s been a relatively weak year for animation, and this is one of the better entries we’ve seen in recent months. With a lively color scheme, cheap, bouncy pop soundtrack, and a slew of low hanging jokes (yes, we see a bull twerking), it’s clear that this is aimed at the youngest of demographics, which is a shame at a time when there is a blossoming pocket of cinema that truly does cater to the needs of the whole family. Ferdinand has some rather pleasant moments, but it’s hard to justify seeing this while Coco is still playing.