Review: ‘Ferdinand’

by Andrew Parker

An entertaining and likable bit of good cheer arriving just in time for the busy holiday movie season, the animated romp Ferdinand might be more interested with keeping the little ones engaged than giving adults much to latch onto, but that doesn’t make it any less charming and bubbly.

A modern retelling of author Munro Leaf and illustrator Robert Lawson’s timeless 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, this latest film from director and animator Carlos Saldanha (the Rio films) and Blue Sky Studios (best known for the inexplicably long running Ice Age franchise) tells the story of a peaceful, easy going bull who would rather spend his days tending to flowers than fighting matadors in Spanish arenas.

The titular Ferdinand is voiced by actor and professional wrestler John Cena, who continues to show a growing range as an on screen performer. It’s a perfect marriage between an animated character and a performer’s personality. The loveable, but naive Ferdinand is portrayed as a child in a grown bull’s body, which is precisely the kind of character Cena excels at playing.

It’s this sense of irrepressible playfulness that gets Ferdinand in trouble, and following a mishap that finds the bull accidentally destroying a good chunk of a nearby town (in the film’s most memorable and creative set piece), he’s whisked away from the loving family he has made a home with and imprisoned at Casa Del Toros, a heavily fortified training ground for animals before they’re slaughtered by bullfighters or sent off to the butcher for being too “soft”. Ferdinand previously lost his father to bullfighting, and he’s none too keen on following in dad’s footsteps. Having already escaped the compound once when he was younger, Ferdinand is eager to escape and help get the other bulls at the facility to safety. Aided by a forgetful, motor-mouthed, overly eager “calming goat” (Kate McKinnon, also perfectly cast), some cute hedgehogs, and most of his fellow bulls, Ferdinand attempts to leave his original fate behind for good and return to the little girl who showed him love and kindness.

The plotting of Ferdinand isn’t much to write home about, and at times the story feels like it’s struggling to pad itself out, with too many false escape attempts building to an easily foreseeable conclusion. That doesn’t mean that Ferdinand is bad by any stretch, but it’s definitely overlong at 108 minutes. Twenty minutes could easily be pruned from Saldanha’s work, and the final results would be largely the same.

While the story drags at times, Ferdinand consistently gives the wee ones moments where they’ll tear up or giggle uncontrollably, and ultimately it’s that sense of irrepressible good will that makes the film worth recommending. While our hero might be in constant danger of suffering a dark fate, there’s a lightness and warmth that stays true to the message of Leaf’s original story. It’s the kind of story we need more of these days: a tale of someone being nice for the sake of being nice and not expecting any sort of reward in exchange. Ferdinand brims with kindness and gentility at every turn, and it’s hard to be cynical about its aims.

It’s also hands down the most gorgeously animated film produced by Blue Sky to date. While their Ice Age films continue to decline into cheap looking dreck that should be going straight to video, Saldanha’s films have shown a visual ambition that the rest of the studio’s efforts have lacked.

There’s not much else to say about Ferdinand other than to state that it made me smile for the majority of its running time, and I think that’s all it wants to do. It sets modest goals and meets them nicely without coming across as disposable, mediocre entertainment for the twelve and under set. There also aren’t many films coming out this holiday season that are appropriate for the little kids (since most of them have already seen Coco by now), and it’s good to know that parents taking the little ones to see this won’t be in for a rough ride.

Ferdinand opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, December 15, 2017.

Check out the trailer for Ferdinand:


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