FILM REVIEW – FERDINAND. With the voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning. Written by Robert L. Baird and Tim Federle and Brad Copeland. Directed by Carlos Saldana. Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements. 106 minutes.
Whether by coincidence or design, both the major studio animated offerings this season feature Hispanic characters. “Coco,” the box office hit from Pixar/Disney, is set in Mexico and has been justifiably praised as one of the best films of the year. However, with school vacation coming up, it’s helpful to have some other family-friendly movies, and this year FERDINAND fills the bill.
Based on the classic children’s book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, it tells the tale of a bull who is raised to battle matadors to-the-death but has no interest in that. Rather than fighting, he prefers to smell the flowers. Needless to say, this does not earn him the respect of the other bulls.
In this rendition (the story was previously animated as a Disney short) Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) escapes and is adopted by a little girl. However, after an incident in the proverbial china shop, he is mistakenly deemed a wild animal and returned to the very place he escaped, where bulls are prepared to fight.
Given that the film is from Blue Sky, whose greatest success are the unending series of “Ice Age” movies, one doesn’t have high expectations here. Yet as the film proceeds, it shows both a surprising depth and some inventive zaniness, which proves to be an entertaining combination. The depth comes from the competition among the other bulls to be selected for the ring, not realizing that it’s not a fair fight and that it inevitably ends in the death of the bull. (While older bulls we meet in the prologue are doomed, parents should know that the characters who are fully developed may be in danger, but all make it to the happy ending.)
The zaniness really takes off with Ferdinand’s return, when a hyperactive goat (voiced by Kate McKinnon) tries to put Ferdinand in training. Even nuttier are the snobbish horses with German accents in the next enclosure, who look down on the plebian bulls. This leads to a competitive dance contest that is the highlight of the movie.
In the end “Ferdinand” is about being true to one’s self, instead of conforming to someone else’s idea of what you “ought” to be, and if that means being a bull who likes to sniff flowers, so be it. The message may resonate even more today than it did at the time the book was published. It’s solid fun for the kids and entertaining for the adults who have to accompany them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.