The Story of Ferdinand easily earns its place in the canon of classic children’s literature, due to Munro Leaf’s gentle, unobtrusive message mated to Robert Lawson’s delightfully expressive illustrations. The book is wonderful but exceptionally short (and was already successfully adapted as an animated short film by no less than Walt Disney two years after its original publication), so I think fans of the book may be forgiven for skeptical sideways glances at the feature-length Ferdinand produced by Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox. It has many features that animation fans have learned not to trust: a feature-length adaptation of a classic-but-slim text, celebrity voice casting, and a lot of slapstick nonsense and bad jokes in the trailers. Fortunately, Ferdinand is quite good: a solid, enjoyable animated kids film to launch into the holiday season, even if the additions don’t accomplish much beyond the technical.
The core story of Ferdinand the movie follows the book closely: the title character is a bull of unusual size who prefers smelling flowers quietly over butting heads and posturing like the other bulls, and who surprises everyone when he is finally brought to a bullfight. Blue Sky adds a lot of stuff to this simple framework: more characters, more plots, more sub-plots, and many more action scenes. If they don’t detract from the bones of the story, they don’t add a whole lot either. In addition to Ferdinand (who is played with a simple-if-bland charm by John Cena), we get a set of bulls who were his childhood friends (one of whom fills the role of the arrogant bully until he doesn’t), a manic sidekick goat named Lupe, a trio of mischievous hedgehogs, a trio of arrogant dancing horses, and a little girl named Nina (plus father and herding dog) who Ferdinand is desperate to be reunited with. There are even roles added for the ranch owner who provides bulls for the bullfights and a greatly expanded role for the matador of the book, who now gets a name and much more to do than get “so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off with his cape and sword.”
All these extra characters and plots lead to sequences that are amusing even as they’re all entirely unnecessary. The movie will habitually stop dead for a few minutes for yet another frantic sequence with lots of animated characters flying around the screen in entertaining but almost completely insubstantial ways. The introductory sequence gives way to an idyllic life with Nina before everything goes wrong and Ferdinand finds himself on a seemingly one-way street to either the bullfighting ring or the slaughterhouse. There’s a lot of bull-on-bull combat, a dance-off, a “bull in a China shop” gag, a chase sequence, a train sequence, and the climactic bullfight, and no matter how entertaining or energetic these sequences are, you can constantly feel the movie checking its watch to ensure it can pad the story out to its 106-minute running time. Kids probably aren’t going to care, and if nothing else Ferdinand would never be accused of cynicism or any kind of mean-spiritedness. But it still feels like there’s too much stuff gilding the lily of something that should be fundamentally simple, and precious little of it will seem all that fresh or surprising. If Ferdinand in the book is all about confounding expectations, it’s hard not to be disappointed that Ferdinand the movie doesn’t.
I am also non-plussed at the way Ferdinand’s people fail to state the obvious, “That’s our bull” to head off an early plot complication, or at how Ferdinand’s mother (a minor character in the book but also the only one with dialogue) has been removed while nearly all the replacement characters are male. Admittedly, it’s not surprising that a story about a bull and bullfighting is male-dominated, but it still irks that the crew worked so hard to add so much stuff without managing to add more decent female characters into the mix. Kate McKinnon’s freewheeling and slightly unhinged performance stretches Lupe the goat a lot farther than the material would allow on its own, but she still doesn’t really get to do much beyond drop some choice one-liners and look really concerned at the movie’s climax.
I feel like 20th Century Fox scheduled Ferdinand opposite Star Wars: The Last Jedi to ensure they would have a handy explanation if the movie doesn’t do well on its opening weekend. I think that would be a shame, since Ferdinand is pretty well done despite all my criticisms of it, and I expect it will have legs over the holiday season as kids get out of school and parents seek out things to do with them. Ferdinand is a solid choice to satisfy that need.
Ferdinand opens in theaters on December 15, 2017.