The classic children’s book The Story of Ferdinand has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1936. Back then it was accused of promoting fascism, pacifism, and anarchism, as some viewed the title character — a massive bull who would rather sit and smell flowers than get into a gory battle in the bullring — as a symbol for striking workers. Nowadays Ferdinand would be considered either a snowflake or a welcome relief from all the belligerence and rancor in the world, but we’d like to think that his gentle tale is really just about being true to oneself.
Ferdinand, the new adaptation of the story from Fox’s Blue Sky Studios animation shop, retains a gentle, sweet charm even as it expands Munro Leaf’s 32-page story to feature length and delves into some surprisingly dark material. When we meet Ferdinand as a calf, he lives on an estate with his father and other Spanish fighting bulls, although he himself has no interest in getting into the ring. When tragedy strikes, however, Ferdinand flees the compound and eventually finds himself a bucolic new home with a young girl named Nina (voiced by Lily Day), her father Juan (Juanes) and a gruff old dog named Paco (Jerrod Carmichael).
Growing up contented and loved, the now full-sized Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) makes a terrible mistake one day — he attempts to visit a flower festival in the local village with Nina and her dad, only to inadvertently cause catastrophe — and finds himself in chains and sent back to the same estate he escaped from years ago, where the owners are determined to get him trained and into the ring with the help of an old “calming goat” (voiced by Kate McKinnon) — whether he wants to fight or not.
One thing Ferdinand the movie doesn’t do is pander: death is an ever-present part of the life the bulls lead and the movie doesn’t shy away from that cold hard fact. The film opens with grief and loss and continues to explore both, albeit in a way that is not too intense for younger kids. The fate of the bulls who can’t fight — through injury or other reasons — is possibly even more horrific, if also a simple but harsh reality, and it’s given its due in a terrifying scene that plays out like a high-tech amusement park haunted house run amok.
Cena is a clever choice to voice Ferdinand, bringing out a subtle vulnerability underneath his voice’s natural gruffness. The rest of the cast is effective as well, although Kate McKinnon comes across a little too much like Ellen DeGeneres doing Dory as the goat. The rest of the bulls on the estate are a diverse lot voiced by David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson and, uh, Peyton Manning, while the most amusing characters are a trio of snooty show horses who end up in a dance-off with Ferdinand, the other bulls and three friendly hedgehogs.
The dance-off and several other sequences — including a quite funny and literal “bull in a china shop” scene — are more than enough to keep the little ones amused while appealing to adults as well. The movie starts to feel a little long toward the end as it takes a few extra twists and turns until Ferdinand makes his inevitable way to confront his greatest fear, but ends on a poignant and heartfelt note. Directed by Carlos Saldanha (who’s primarily known for working on the Ice Age and Rio franchises), Ferdinand is top-notch on a technical level and lovely to look at.
Meanwhile, its underlying message of believing in oneself and one’s own nature — and getting the respect of others in the process — is eloquently stated. It’s too bad that a lot of people probably won’t see it; after all, the movie is opening this weekend against a little picture called Star Wars: The Last Jedi. That’s a fight even a big old bull like Ferdinand is bound to lose.
Ferdinand is out in theaters on Friday, Dec. 15.