The 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand (by Munro Leaf), about a bull that would rather smell flowers than fight, has been adapted into the feature-length, computer-animated family comedy Ferdinand, a charming film that breaks no new ground, but gets by on sheer likability.
As the story begins, young Ferdinand lives with his father in a stable designed to prepare bulls for bullfighting. All of the other young bulls dream of future glory, but Ferdinand is more interested in taking care of flowers. After his father (Jeremy Sisto) is selected by a matador, Ferdinand escapes. He is found by a farmer who gives him to his daughter, Nina (voiced by Julia Saldanha (who can also be heard in both Rio films) as a little girl and Lily Day when she is older).
Flash-forward several years and Ferdinand, now a gigantic adult bull (voiced by wrestler/actor John Cena, who was in last month’s comedy sequel Daddy’s Home 2), loves his quiet life as Nina’s pet. But, after disobeying Nina (and rejecting the advice of his friend, Paco the dog (Jerrod Carmichael, recently the star of NBC’s The Carmichael Show)), Ferdinand goes to the town’s Flower Festival and inadvertently causes chaos. He is taken by authorities back to the stable where he was born so they can prepare him to fight. Can Ferdinand continue to resist nature or will he succumb to society’s assumptions about him?
A major problem I have with a lot of modern (non-Pixar) American animated films is that the story and characters are just a clothesline that the filmmakers hang a bunch of unrelated gags and pop-culture references on. After seeing the trailers for Ferdinand, that is the kind of film I expected to see. But, I am happy to report, that is not the film they have made. Ferdinand is a charming movie with a lovable lead character that gets its humor from its story and, mainly, the personalities of its characters. Ferdinand himself is just a nice protagonist to spend 98 minutes with (plus another short scene a couple of minutes into the end credits). The drama of the story comes from the conflict between his desires and society’s assumptions. That is also where the comedy comes from as the film surrounds him with a fun supporting cast that has trouble understanding his lack of interest in being the biggest and baddest bull.
When he returns to the stables, he reconnects with some old bull rivals and meets some new creatures. The old ones are wannabe alpha bull Valiente (Bobby Cannavale, who also provided a voice in The Nut Job 2), the skinny Bones (Anthony Anderson, who voiced a character in last month’s The Star) and nervous Guapo (NFL great Peyton Manning in his first film role).
The new ones include Scottish bull Angus (the always welcome David Tennant, who currently voices Scrooge McDuck on Disney XD’s Duck Tales reboot), overly friendly goat Lupe (Kate McKinnon, who voiced the villain in Leap!) and hedgehogs Una (Gina Rodriguez, who can be heard as Mary in The Star), Dos (Daveed Diggs, who can currently be seen as Mr. Browne in Wonder) and Cuatro (comedian Gabriel Iglesias, who had a busy year of voice work between this, Smurfs, The Nut Job 2, The Star and Coco) (do not ask them about Tres). They are all varying degrees of enjoyable, with Tennant and the hedgehogs bringing the most laughs. I was not a huge fan of Lupe, who I found annoying, but McKinnon does her best and delivers a few laughs.
Ferdinand is not a classic of the genre by any means. It takes a little while to get going and is not particularly original (even for an adaptation). It is not quite on the level of the average Pixar film (certainly, it is not as good as last month’s Coco). But it is just a step below. It is an enjoyable film, with good voice work, likable characters, some funny moments and bright and lively animation. It may not make any year-end best of lists, but it is a good film that hopefully will not be ignored among all the Star Wars mania currently enveloping moviegoers.
3½ out of 5
John Cena as Ferdinand
Kate McKinnon as Lupe
Bobby Cannavale as Valiente/Valiente’s Father
David Tennant as Angus
Anthony Anderson as Bones
Peyton Manning as Guapo
Gina Rodriguez as Una
Daveed Diggs as Dos
Gabriel Iglesias as Cuatro
Jerrod Carmichael as Paco
Flula Borg as Hans
Sally Phillips as Greta
Boris Kodjoe as Klaus
Julia Saldanha as Young Nina
Lily Day as Nina
Jeremy Sisto as Ferdinand’s Father
Directed by Carlos Saldanha
Screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland