‘Ferdinand’ Review: A Missed Opportunity To Create a New ‘Up’

What Is ‘Ferdinand’?

Ferdinand loves nothing more than smelling flowers. But when he grows into the biggest bull among his peers, and finds himself in a spot of bother, he’s taken for a dangerous animal. Prized for his size and (misdiagnosed) aggression, he’s seen as a potential opponent in the ring for Spain’s most famous matador. But the last thing Ferdinand wants to do is fight, so he mounts an escape attempt with an unlikely bunch of allies. But can he escape his destiny?

A Bona Fide Classic

Unlike many animated films today, Ferdinand actually started life as a book. The Story of Ferdinand by American author Munro Leaf quickly became a children’s classic. First published in 1936, it also ruffled feathers. Despite it being on the surface a simple, heartwarming tale about a bull who refuses to fight, some political powers took against it as incendiary propaganda.

But the story can also be read as a fable; an allegory for staying true to yourself, and it’s this message that comes to the fore in this new screen adaptation. That, and its presentation of Ferdinand as a character who challenges gender stereotypes. Which is, of course, an extension of being true to yourself.

The Story of Ferdinand
A glimpse inside the pages of The Story of Ferdinand.

The Hollywood Treatment

Given Hollywood’s obsession with plundering literature to adapt into its next screen hit, alongside its penchant for remakes, it’s surprising that The Story of Ferdinand hasn’t seen a screen incarnation since 1938’s Disney animated short. Which, incidentally, won an Oscar.

This new feature-length version adds padding to the story and follows CGI animation rules by writing in zany sidekicks, crow-barring in action-heavy set pieces and recruiting a big-name voice cast. John Cena takes on the role of the titular bull, with Kate McKinnon, David Tennant and Bobby Cannavale contributing their voices to the supporting characters. It’s from the studio that brought us the Ice Age and Rio franchises, which gives you some idea of what to expect. The film is also helmed by the studio’s preferred director Carlos Saldanha, which should again serve to alert you to what’s to come.

Ferdinand poster

Falling Short

Despite the box office success of those films, however, Twentieth Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios still has some way to go to match the quality of Pixar and DreamWorks’ offerings. Ferdinand is no exception.

From the off, it mostly appears to go through the motions. It feels like an exercise in box-ticking, providing all the material deemed necessary in a film aimed squarely at children. Namely, high-energy, bright colours, pretty animation and quippy lines from a host of comedic characters. That’s in danger of making it sound good. But it’s really just dialling it in.

The sorry thing is that the raw material is there for Ferdinand to be so much better than it is. There’s an underlying melancholic tone running through the film that nags at you as you watch, and hints at something deeper that it never fully explores.

Ferdinand
Ferdinand with Nina, who takes him in after he runs away.

This stems from plot points such Ferdinand’s dad wanting him to become a fighter in the ring, despite Ferdinand showing no propensity for it; and the fact that he himself is taken to fight when Ferdinand is young, never to return. Then there’s the fact that the young bull is left at the mercy of his peers on the ranch he’s been born and raised on, who take to bullying him until he runs away.

Later, once he’s fully grown, Ferdinand is separated from his adoptive family – a little girl and her father who’ve raised him from a calf – then thrown back together with his childhood tormentors. He eventually finds a way to make peace with them as they work together to escape the ‘chop shop’ and begin to understand the reality of bullfighting, and the truth to being a bull in a world run by humans. A finale which sees Ferdinand come face to face with a matador is actually genuinely moving, as is the moment when he’s reunited with Nina, the little girl who loves him.

Lacklustre Sidekicks

There’s a better, more profound movie inside Ferdinand fighting to get out. Disappointingly, it’s lost amid the irritating and largely unfunny antics of the comedy sidekicks our hero is furnished with. There’s a trio of hedgehogs, who come packaged with a running gag around the fact nobody knows what species they are. They’re referred to as weasels and squirrels at certain points. And then there’s the exuberant and slightly deranged ‘calming’ goat, Lupe (McKinnon), whose job is to keep Ferdinand pacified. Also of note, some hideous national stereotypes are perpetuated in a group of German horses and a Highland bull named Angus (Tennant).

Ferdinand could have had the emotional weight of an Up, a Wall-E, or even an Inside Out, but instead it relies lazily, or perhaps simply unadventurously, on a formula to deliver an animated also-ran.

Ferdinand
Ferdinand with goat sidekick Lupe and hedgehogs Una, Dos and Cuatro.

The Best Bits

It’s not a dead loss, though. There are certainly scenes and moments in Ferdinand to enjoy. When the penny drops that the film is bringing a well-used saying to life by depositing Ferdinand in the interior of a shop stacked high with crockery and glassware, you sit back and enjoy the unfolding chaos. The little old lady shopkeeper is one of the film’s highlights. Sadly, her appearance is all-too-brief.

At the same point in the film, there’s also a fun and energetic chase sequence involving a baby in a pushchair that’s taken warmly to Ferdinand. A small handful of jokes, too — both visual and verbal — do land and raise a smile.

Is ‘Ferdinand’ Good?

A film with a positive message for kids, and lovely animation as always, it feels almost sinful to criticize Ferdinand. Particularly when you consider the story’s history. But when you compare it to Pixar’s back catalogue, Ferdinand can’t touch the superior animation studio’s output. For the most part, it lacks the charm, quirkiness, depth and sheer brilliance of other animated films that audiences around the globe have taken into their hearts.

Ferdinand hits screens in the UK on December 9 and in the US on December 15.

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