Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Running with the bulls time: 107 minutes
Movies aimed at children fascinate me. There seem to be two broad categories when it comes to them. One is that children’s movies are ambitious, fruitful, imaginative, and respectful for the tastes and mental capabilities of children. The other is that children have the attention span of dogs, and should be treated as sponges for noise and light. Ferdinand stretches itself across, at times, both of these categories. Parents, if your children pick out a film to see this Christmas period, you can do a lot worse than Ferdinand.
Based on the book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand, this Blue Sky Studios animated film tells the story of a bull that doesn’t want to grow up like all the other bulls. Whilst others dream of getting to fight the matador (some people believe a war is something you can win), Ferdinand values flowers and wants to spread happiness and joy. After his father is selected for battle and never returns, Ferdinand escapes from Casa Del Toro and is discovered by a father and daughter, where he grows strong and becomes a beloved family pet.
John Cena stars as Ferdinand the bull. If Cena doesn’t deliver in the role, then the whole film falls apart. Fortunately, Cena does a fantastic job at bridging the strength of this bull with a sincere-sounding kindness and almost child-like wonder. It’s easy to imagine some actors really “trying” to bring out a bull or a sweetheart, even simultaneously, and it getting really messy. Cena somewhat embodies the bull, and creates a truly endearing character. The movie shines most when Ferdinand is trying to be good. What’s especially touching about the character is that he’s starting the trend. There’s lots of talk about him being weak, and a coward, because he doesn’t want to do what “bulls do.” It’s a great symbol for toxic masculinity, and the film very cleverly challenges this, without being heavy-handed, by simply making Ferdinand genuinely nice in a world that is cruel to him.
Unfortunately, a lot of the other characters fall into that bracket of noise and light designed to bombard. Kate McKinnon plays Lupe, a weird-looking goat, that seems inspired by the idea that every animated film needs a side character where the gag is they talk really fast, as loudly as they can, and get hurt a lot. The fault is not with McKinnon, who throws herself into the role as much as she can, but is compounded by the writing and the direction. The gags are sometimes not “there” with her, and they could have used a lot more re-writes to actually give her funny content, as opposed to just noisy stuff. Her first big gag is that she breathes extremely heavily. If just reading that annoys you as much as it did me writing it, then you will probably understand what I mean about that goat.
The other bulls all serve their purpose. Bobby Cannavale lends his voice to Ferdinand’s rival, Valiente. It’s a gritty and strong vocal performance, but of course, when Valiente has a change of heart and becomes a “good bull”, he gets all the lines. I can’t remember any specific lines, but they’re not worth remembering. When there are chaotic action scenes, he might shout something like “I’ve got you!” or “My turn!”, but I cannot be sure. To be fair, the script is littered with dialogue for the sake of dialogue. Adults could play a drinking game where they take a shot every time the word “hedgehog” is said, and get fairly toasty. And any film with the line “We’ve got company!” is worthy of chugging a whole drink, which this film gives to its titular character.
It feels too long. I didn’t get bored, per se, but when you cut out the number of times someone is scared by a bull being in a place they shouldn’t be, or a goat getting knocked against a wall, you could probably shave off thirty minutes and have a much tighter and more enjoyable film. But the first act is cute, and the fourth act builds tension and pays off its characters in a way that actually touched me. It’s just those middle two that feel kind of a drag. And the whole thing is elongated by some dancing animated animal numbers that are probably entertaining for what they are, but feel designed to sell soundtracks and are way too “tent-pole” for my personal tastes. You will feel your children being sold products during Ferdinand.
Sometimes these sorts of movies are put together by a small battalion of writers. Ferdinand was penned by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, and Brad Copeland—the last of which is from Arrested Development fame. They know how to write a script. Structurally, it is all there, and the gags are often quite good. It has all the characters. You know, the “characters”? The wise-cracking dog, the bull that’s not really that tough, the bull that’s there for comic relief, the one that’s not, the hedgehogs designed to dance, bicker, and be cute. It’s not the most inspired or ambitious work you’ll ever see, but it is certainly competent and I’m sure they will all work again.
Ultimately, Ferdinand is successful at what it aims to do. I attended a screening full of children and their families. It held their attention, there was laughter (even at the goat getting hurt), and at the end it got a nice round of applause. The categories I was talking about earlier can also be described in two ways: is this going to be a children’s film that I want to take my kids to, or not? The answer is yes. It’s fun, funny, and sweet. There’s a lot of noise and light for the sake of noise and light, but at its core, Ferdinand has a good heart. And I just wanted to hug that damn bull.