When an animated movie is based on the cruel ‘sport’ of bullfighting, there’s a greater chance something will go terribly wrong with the story. While I really wish director Carlos Saldanha and the half dozen screenwriters had seized the opportunity to issue a stronger condemnation of the archaic practice, “Ferdinand” delights with its simple and straightforward storytelling.
Inspired by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s beloved book “The Story of Ferdinand,” the film tells the story of pacifist bull Ferdinand (John Cena) who is mistaken for a dangerous beast and torn away from his loving home and his young companion Nina (Lily Day). He winds up at a training farm where he is destined to become a fighting bull, Ferdinand is a well meaning and gentle giant who cares about bunnies and flowers and nature, not about being chosen by a matador to fight for glory in the ring. Choosing to blaze his own path, (and after it becomes clear to him that he just doesn’t have one ounce of meanness in his body), the bull enlists the help of other animals on the farm to set themselves free and return to his family.
The story is set in Spain but other than the vibrant Spanish-inspired original score by John Powell, there aren’t many other authentic cultural elements on display. It’s still a positive step for an animated film in particular to feature non-white characters (although they all speak English in this film). The voice actors are enjoyable enough, and Cena voices our horned hero with great empathy. He’s the perfect choice for the voice of Ferdinand because he himself is big, burly and kind of clumsy. Kate McKinnon scores big laughs as calming goat Lupe and provides most of the comic relief. Her antics as she attempts to take her new friend “from hola to ole in a day” will surely delight young ones.
Blue Sky Studios hasn’t quite caught up to Dreamworks or Pixar in the animation department, but here it is more than adequate with friendly, curved lines and detailed backgrounds. This isn’t cutting-edge stuff but it’s pleasant enough to look at and has a sweet and charming quality. The film doesn’t fall too far into the trap of stupid shtick and pop culture references either. Some of the antics simply don’t work, like the irritating hedgehog characters, a snobby horse dance off, and a grand escape where animals drive a truck and ride a public bus. They’re silly and nonsensical yet still kind of fun anyway.
What’s not so fun is the dark subject of bullfighting. I supposed it’s handled with a delicate enough hand, but there’s a scene where Lupe tries to make it sound romantic. She compares it to a graceful dance, which is NOT a good message. For the most part it’s explained with sensitivity yet honesty, including a poignant scene when Ferdinand wanders into the owner’s trophy room and, upon seeing dozens of horns (including his missing father’s) hanging on the wall, realizes that once a bull enters the ring he never comes back. The film doesn’t shy away from other harsh realities of bullfighting either, including several references to older and weaker bulls being shipped off to the nearby “meat factory.” While these developments may spark questions from your children, it’s not too overt to upset the tiny ones (but this PG rated film is better suited for older kids).
When things veer into heavy territory, comic relief quickly enters from stage left at just the right moment. The classic, positive messages are something to applaud, as the film teaches kids about looking out for each other, showing kindness to animals, choosing your own path in life, and not judging a person solely on their exterior. In the end, Ferdinand learns that just because the world says he’s a fighter doesn’t mean he’s forced to fulfill society’s assigned destiny. He discovers that he’s “more than just a set of horns,” and the film is too.