Thankfully, this is not the same old bull.
This is Ferdinand, the titular star of Blue Sky Studio’s latest animated adaptation. Unlike other bulls, Ferdinand doesn’t like to fight. Rather, he likes to roam the fields and smell the flowers. The beginning of the film introduces Ferdinand as a calf, outcast by the other bulls who find his pacifism weird. On the day of a bullfight, Ferdinand’s father is sent off to fight the Matador in a bullfight, only to find out he hasn’t returned (if you know bullfighting, you would know how the fight ended). After learning that this will be his fate, Ferdinand decides to run away from the farm only to end up on another farm, where he is adopted by a little girl named Nina. With Nina’s help, he grows to be the largest bull in all of Spain, both in stature and in heart.
One day, while at a flower festival with Nina, Ferdinand accidentally sits on a bee, who stings him in retaliation. This sends the usually calm and collected Ferdinand into a painful frenzy, which, in turn, sends the festival into a state of panic. Being a massive sized bull, how can Ferdinand not send chills down anyone’s spine? As a result, Ferdinand is taken away from Nina and is brought back to the farm he was originally from. If that wasn’t enough, the Matador is looking for a new bull to fight, and Ferdinand, being the biggest bull in the pen, is likely to be picked. With the help of his new friends, including a calming goat named Lupe, Ferdinand must learn to fight to win his freedom and return home to Nina.
If you have been watching TV recently, you have most likely come across at least one advertisement for this film. To say the least, these ads were not encouraging. They contain breakdancing, pop songs, and lowbrow humor that feel dated. I saw one that made a play on the song ‘Surfin’ Bird’ (lyricized “Everybody’s heard about the bull” – groan!) Understandably, I was not thrilled about seeing this film, especially since I enjoyed reading the Ferdinand book when I was a kid. Thankfully, the film is a lot better than the marketing suggests. In fact, it is much, MUCH better.
The film’s story, while not entirely faithful to the original book’s timeline (they had to fill those 90 minutes somehow), stays true to the film’s message about pacifism. Part of what makes this film work is Ferdinand himself, because he is a genuinely likable character. He’s optimistic, peaceful, and cheery, but also knows when he has to be tough–without hurting anyone, that is. John Cena has developed as a likable actor in movies such as Trainwreck, but here, he is pitch perfect as the voice of Ferdinand. One impressive move on the filmmakers’ part is how they kept Ferdinand’s pacifist personality consistent throughout the film. One can argue that a character is more interesting if they display a range of emotions, and while that is a valid argument, nice characters can be interesting too.
What also stands out about this film is the animation. While most of Blue Sky Studios’ films are not grand emotional stories at the same level as Disney or DreamWorks, the animation in them in wonderful to look at. Ferdinand is, by far, their best-looking film. The color palette is exceptionally vibrant, and Spain has never looked grander.
As for the film’s humor, I was surprised by how delightful most of it was. Not all of the laughs are knee slappers, but they are gentle and do not rely heavily on pop culture references. Some of the most humorous moments are a scene where Ferdinand is deciding whether or not to go to the flower festival, as well as a scene where Ferdinand has to go through a China shop without breaking anything. The timing in these scenes is pristine, and their good-natured tone makes them somewhat inviting. There is, however, one moment where a character abruptly shouts a swear at Lupe. I personally found it hilarious, yet I still wondered if that joke was appropriate enough for a film aimed at children. I guess if a family film like Kung-Fu Panda can get away with that word, this one can, too.
Is the movie perfect? Not really. Kate McKinnon, gets maybe a bit too much screen time as Lupe. Most of her one-liners are hit and miss and, often her humorous scenes seem extraneous. This character would have worked more with better direction.
There is also a scene in which Ferdinand and his friends partake in a dancing match against a trio of snobby German horses. The scene, as a whole, felt unnecessary and could have been taken out of the film without dismantling the plot. It almost feels like this scene was written and animated just for marketing purposes—and then it was actually included in the film. The genuine charm of films like Ferdinand should speak for themselves, and studios need to find better ways to market certain films, because people could be turned off to what could be a delightful time at the movies.
Ferdinand will not go down as a modern animated classic, as the weaker scenes keep it from soaring, but it’s heart is in the right place, and it shows. The funny scenes are genuinely funny, the message is strong, and the climax might leave you a little teary-eyed. Not only do I think it is worth going to see, but I dare say that people “need” to see. Sometimes, you need to look beneath the surface and see just how nice something is.