Genre: CG Animation
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Cast: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Gina Rodriguez, Anthony Anderson, David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, Daveed Diggs, Sally Phillips
Runtime: 1 hr 48 mins
Released By: 20th Century Fox
Opening Day: 21 December 2017
Synopsis: FERDINAND tells the story of a giant bull with a big heart. After being mistaken for a dangerous beast, he is captured and torn from his home. Determined to return to his family, he rallies a misfit team on the ultimate adventure. Set in Spain, Ferdinand proves you can't judge a bull by its cover.
Fun fact – ‘Ferdinand’ hails from the 1936 Munro Leaf children’s classic ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ about a titular Spanish bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the ring, and because it was published just before the Spanish Civil War, it was then vilified as pacifist propaganda.
Fun fact number two – the black-and-white picture book illustrated by Robert Lawson has only since been made into an Oscar-winning ‘Silly Symphonies’-vintage Disney short back in 1938, and no one else has attempted a different adaptation or for that matter tried to translate it for a feature-length canvas.
As enduringly popular as that book may have been, familiarity with the literary phenomenon in this part of the world is likely to be faint, and even more so with that faithful 1938 animated short. In fact, the whole premise of bull-fighting will probably seem quaint, what with the idea of ranches raising prize-worthy bulls and matadors coming around to select their would-be opponents in the ring. That is not lost on Carlos Saldanha, who in his seventh Blue Sky feature as either director or co-director has ensured that its be-yourself messaging will be universally comprehended no matter the cultural unfamiliarity.
Just as significantly, his latest computer-animated adaptation throws in plenty of Hollywood-style sight gags and comic set-pieces to appeal to young ones and their parents alike, while retaining enough cultural accents in the overall atmosphere so that the source material’s distinct Spanish flavour (from the verdant Spanish pastures to the Madrid traffic to the bullfighting ring) isn’t lost. It is also worth mentioning that he and his three writers have opted to preserve the beginning and end of Lawson’s book, while adding new incidents and characters to the middle act to expand its protagonist’s adventures away from home.
So just like in the book, we first meet Ferdinand when he is just a calf on a ranch who seems to be more interested in a lone red flower growing within the pen he shares with the other young’uns than butting heads with them. After his father fails to return from a bullfight, the young Ferdinand runs away on a train, eventually finding idyllic refuge with a young girl Nina (Lily Day) on her father’s farm where he grows to full, enormous size. Although given explicit instructions to stay at home lest he frighten the crowds, Ferdinand makes his own way into town for the annual flower festival. Unfortunately, the usually docile creature goes wild after a spot with a bee, thus incurring the lasso from the authorities and a trip thousands of miles back to the ranch where he was born.
There, not only is he reunited with old friends (including a Scottish Highland bull voiced by David tenant) and foe (namely a big, brown bullying bull voiced by Bobby Cannavale), Ferdinand also has to contend with a whole new menagerie of ranch dwellers – among them, the kooky ‘calming goat’ Lupe (Kate McKinnon), a trio of wacky thieving hedgehogs Uno, Dos and Cuartro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, Gabriel Iglesias) who do not speak of Tres, and three snooty German horses (voiced by Flula Borg, Sally Phillips and Boris Kodjoe). Ferdinand is determined to get back to Nina, and while at first sceptical, he will eventually win over Lupe, the said hedgehogs and even the conscientious objections of his fellow bulls to break out of the ranch and find their own lives outside of bullfighting (and the ‘chop shop’, we might add).
It’s an excess of supporting characters to be frank, and as noble as it is to give each his or her due, the film could do with fewer of them and a less saggy midsection. That said, Saldanha does his level best to keep the physical and verbal comedy going at a steady pace, and there is no denying many of them are cheerfully amusing. Some of the highlights include a ‘dance-off’ between the bulls and the three Lipizzaner horses, and an extended chase between the bulls and their owners that starts at the ranch and continues along a busy highway right into the heart of the Spanish capital Madrid. Though calculated for pure manic humour, there is enough wit and inventiveness in each of these two madcap sequences to justify their welcome here.
To its credit, the film chooses to end on a much less raucous note, and is indeed all the better for it. As he stands inside the ring with the veteran bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) who had wanted Ferdinand for a farewell appearance, Ferdinand underscores his choice for peace, not violence, beautifully and the inevitable reunion between him and Nina is surprisingly heartfelt. Much of that poignancy is also thanks to WWE wrestler John Cena’s lively voice-work, balanced perfectly between sweetness and strength to give Ferdinand a larger-than-life vividness. Cena also has great support in a talented multi-racial ensemble, including ‘SNL’ alum McKinnon on fine eccentric form as Lupe as well as Rodriguez, Diggs and Iglesias playing his hedgehog sidekicks.
So even if you’re not familiar with the Leaf children’s book or its Spanish traditions, ‘Ferdinand’ is still a big bull (sorry, ball) of fun, complete with a reaffirming message that will speak to audiences of any shape, size or cultural background. Though Hollywood has on more than one occasion reduced a beloved children’s short story when expanding it to feature-length into a series of cookie-cutter chase sequences with topical humour, we’re glad to say that this isn’t one of those occasions, and while enlivened with a fair bit of contemporary wit, it does take care to honour its source material and retain the distinctive ethnic flair within. If anything, it does give the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop’ idiom a whole new literal meaning, and you’ll have to see it to believe it.
(Bullish on wit, charm and heart, this latest Blue Sky toon is a big ball of fun)
Review by Gabriel Chong