Ferdinand the Bull first appeared on the big screen in a 1938 Oscar-winning Disney animated short. He’s now been given the feature-length treatment thanks to Blue Sky Studios, best known for the “Ice Age” films. Two years ago their “Peanuts Movie” was a gentle, thoughtful and surprisingly deep adaptation of a classic property.
“Ferdinand”, which is based on the beloved 1936 children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand – Spain’s equivalent to Winnie the Pooh – is a lightweight in the emotion department. But for the intended audience (5-10 year-olds), it’s a safe, soft and sweet adventure comedy.
The opening 20 minutes feature some of the film’s best moments. Young Ferdinand isn’t like all the other bulls. He’s not a macho “tough guy” with dreams of fighting in the ring. Instead, Ferdinand is kind, always looking to protect others – from bunnies to his favorite things: flowers. Because of this, he gets bull-ied by his peers at Casa del Toro, Spain’s top training site for fighting bulls.
Ferdinand escapes and becomes the pet of a young girl named Nina, her father and pal to their family dog. Soon, he significantly grows in size (and takes-on the very masculine voice of John Cena). One day, he makes the mistake of venturing into town where he accidentally causes a raucous, is captured and sent back to Casa del Toro.
Ferdinand meets-up with a new friend, Lupe the goat, voiced by Kate McKinnon. Here’s when the movie take a tame and unfortunate turn. Lupe is the predictably over-the-top and annoying animation sidekick. At least the talented McKinnon is able to show-off her incredible vocal abilities through the bounciness of the character. From this point on the movie becomes a simple escape caper, with little depth and few surprises.
Several scenes are stretched and minor characters are included simply as filler to get “Ferdinand” to about 90-minutes (minus the credits) – from a trio of smart-aleck horses (a random dance-off midway through is a bit bizarre) to a trio of hedgehogs (at least they’ve got a decent pay-off in a brief mid-credits scene).
In terms of look, feel and design, “Ferdinand” is basically a children’s book come to life. Story is not a strength, but several supporting factors are, especially for that elementary school-level target demo and the parents/grandparents who’ll be sitting next to them. The animation is bright and pretty, with gorgeous landscapes and wide images of the bull ring. There are a couple of chase scenes, but the pacing as a whole is far from the frenetic style of the “Ice Age” films.
The script isn’t dialogue-heavy, which is also welcome. Longtime Blue Sky director Carlos Saldana (“Rio”, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”) includes some effective quiet moments, and he incorporates music in smart places. John Powell (“How to Train Your Dragon”) has contributed a satisfying score. Nick Jonas’ Golden Globe-nominated song “Home” (performed twice) fits-in nicely.
There are a few cute references/puns involving the running of the bulls, bull riding and even a bull in a china shop that kids won’t get but the older crowd will appreciate. There’s also a straightforward depiction of the concepts involved in bullfighting and how it never ends well for the bull. And the death of a character does bookend the story, but the references are mild and will probably be missed by the little ones. Hopefully the messages – being yourself, dealing with conflict without fighting, and the importance of loyalty and friendship – won’t be.
Unless you’re a diehard animation fan, or you need something for the kids to do to get their mind off Christmas, there’s really no reason to see “Ferdinand” (and that includes Cena fans). But clearly Blue Sky’s goal was to make a safe, faithful and friendly family film about an iconic literary character. And the studio has succeeded. And that’s no bull.