Cinematic Releases: Ferdinand (2017) - Reviewed

Bulls are everywhere in our euphemistic lexicon – at one end, we may choose to “take the bull by the horns”, and…well, we all know what comes out of the other end. Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox, with their newest animated feature, Ferdinand, can’t seem to decide which end of the bull it prefers as it meanders through a series of thematic starts and stops, never quite being able to settle on a single storytelling goal. 

Loosely based on The Story of Ferdinand, the storybook by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, the film tells the story of a young bull who prefers blossoms to bloodbaths. When bulky Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) tries to follow the little girl who adopted him as a calf to a flower festival, he destroys much of the town and is sent back to the farm from which he originally escaped, having lost his father in the bullfighting ring. None of the other animals can understand Ferd’s aversion to bullfighting, believing that a big and strong enough bovine can win a match by sheer brawn and force of will. 

The trouble with Ferdinand, though, is that it cannot decide what kind of film it wants to be; its funniest moments come when it dons the mask of “wacky talking animal comedy” – particularly utilizing its fantastic voice cast. David Tennant, voicing the (literally) beefy Angus in a Scottish brogue reminiscent of Rob Paulsen’s Gordon Quid in Catscratch, is marvelous fun, as is Kate McKinnon voicing the goofy, ugly-cute “calming goat”, Lupe, who becomes Ferdinand’s first ally and friend at the farm. The physical comedy inherent in the trademark Blue Sky animal designs, particularly put to good use with a trio of varicolored hedgehogs called Una, Dos and Cuatro (“We do not speak of Tres!”), makes the film visually clever, and genuinely funny. 

Had Ferdinand decided on wearing the hat of pure comedy, it could have been a fantastically simple concept fleshed out with its likable cast and a few inspired, if cartoony, action scenes – including the obligatory “bull in a china shop” and “animals driving” tropes, which surprisingly do not feel as tired here as they might have. But it insists upon trying to be more than it is, and falls short as a result. Instead of embracing its wackiness and going full-stop funny, it tries to grapple with its story to attempt imparting a serious lesson – but it can’t really plant its hooves in any one particular moral. It tries to posit that there can be more to a being than its birthright, but doesn’t quite follow through. Its human characters are not developed enough to be relatable, so any message it might have conveyed about the relationships between people and animals – particularly animals bred for fighting or to become food – is completely absent. There are even moments wherein there are inklings of pot-shots taken at toxic masculinity, as the bulls mock Ferdinand for being “soft” and for loving flowers more than the idea of fighting for some kind of esoteric idea of glory for animal-kind. But these are subtle, and don’t really drive the film enough to make any kind of meaningful statement about masculine culture, and pass unremarked – and unremarkably – despite the entire theme of Ferdinand’s character being his gentle, pacifistic nature pitted against a world that only sees him as a terrible beast. 

Ferdinand communicates best when it literally takes the bulls by the horns. Its muddled efforts at sentimentality muck up a perfectly sweet and funny family film, and while the characters are indeed delightful and fun to watch, we do not get to know them in the details, which means that any lesson that they might have for us is mostly lost in translation. 

It is disappointing that Ferdinand does not deliver better during its emotional beats, or spend much time cultivating its central relationships outside of some cuddly, warm-hued montages and largely empty banter that is supposed to stand in for better character development, particularly among the animals. It is otherwise a charming film, which younger viewers will undoubtedly enjoy but which may leave older viewers confused as to its point. During its most kinetic scenes, its humor shines through like a golden calf – but whenever it tries to mire itself in anything deeper than its caricatured comedy, it merely ends up swatting flies. 

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-Dana Culling