The beloved children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf, with illustrations by Robert Lawson, was published in 1936. But the simple, pacifist story about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight has resonated across generations.
It’s a natural progression that this favorite character would find a home on the big screen in an animated feature, “Ferdinand,” but perhaps the filmmakers behind the raucous “Ice Age” movies aren’t exactly the right team to adapt this elegant story to the screen.
The peaceful spirit of Ferdinand the bull is celebrated in the film, directed by Carlos Saldanha, but the rather sparse story has been filled out with the typical animated feature fare of manic action, a coterie of wise-cracking animals, body humor, dead parents, car chases, dance-offs and pop music. Elegant and simple, this film is not.
To flesh out the story of Ferdinand to feature length, the team of writers has given the protagonist a dramatic upbringing. The young and gentle bull flees his ranch after his father is chosen for a bullfight and never returns. He ends up at the home of a flower farmer and is taken in by his daughter, Nina (Lily Day), where girl and beast grow up together in a perfect harmony.
But Ferdinand (John Cena) becomes too large and unruly for his own good, and after wreaking havoc on a flower festival, he’s shipped back to the ranch, where he’s reunited with his childhood friends.
They headbutt and tussle to be chosen by the matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre), but Ferdinand is the odds-on favorite due to his hulking size and clumsiness that masquerades as ferociousness. When the bulls realize they’re being sent to “the chop shop” if they can’t perform, it inspires an all-out revolt, as they hatch an escape plan with the help of three resourceful hedgehogs and a sassy goat (Kate McKinnon).
Despite the mania, and the influx of characters each wackier than the next (a trio of snobby Austrian Lipizzaner horses are truly random), “Ferdinand” contains some resonant messages about prioritizing gentleness and love over competition and violence, and about not judging a book by its cover.
Much of Ferdinand’s struggle comes from his desire to break free from the system of violent masculinity where the only way out is to fight. He’s deemed violent and scary due to the way he looks, and he pushes back on that stereotype, most notably when he plops down in the bullfighting ring, wanting only to stop and smell the roses.
“Ferdinand” does attempt to express something authentic about Spanish culture, which reveres bulls, and their tenuous relationships with humans — from the bullfights to the running of the bulls. There are a couple of genuinely funny gags that only adults will get (a funny “bull in a china shop” sequence). With a lovely voice performance from Cena, the spirit of Ferdinand does shine through. But the rest of the story filler is mostly forgettable.