Directed by Carlos Saldanha
Featuring the voice talents of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant, Sally Phillips, Peyton Manning, and Daveed Diggs.
Young Ferdinand is being trained to fight in the bull ring. But right from the start he’s not interested, preferring to enjoy the flowers. He escapes and grows up on a peaceful farm, but he’s so huge that when he goes to town as an adult for the first time, everybody assumes he’s aggressive, so he’s captured and returned to his original home. And then the country’s top matador, El Primero, comes to choose the best bull for his next fight ….
Ferdinand’s story goes back to the 1930s. The original children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand, was a slim volume about the young bull who preferred smelling flowers to fighting in the bullring. But, because of its apparent anti-war stance, it was banned by General Franco in Spain and in Germany, Hitler ordered it to be burnt. Arriving on the big screen, the modest yet massive bull has a taken a different direction.
Director Carlos Saldanha and his writing team have taken quite a few liberties with the original, expanding the narrative and adding new characters. In the main, they work, although there are a few wobbles. The story now includes Ferdinand’s legendary fighting father, an idyllic farm and the flower-loving bull becoming a bigger hero than ever.
There’s new characters, like Angus (voiced by David Tennant), inevitably from Aberdeen (geddit?) not being able to see. Why? Because his long fringe hangs in his eyes. But when he bumps into everything, the laughs are few and far between because the solution is agonisingly obvious. Eventually, Ferdinand (the voice of John Cena) comes up with that very solution. Lupe (voiced by Kate McKinnon), the calming goat, is woefully under-developed. Apparently there to provide most of the comedy – in the same way as Shrek’s Donkey – she has a set of grotesquely crooked teeth, but otherwise doesn’t give McKinnon’s comedy talents to work on.
But the original’s tone, simplicity and sincerity remain intact so that, while this is a family adventure (complete with U certificate), there’s a surprisingly serious and thoughtful under current. That doesn’t mean there’s no action or laughs: there’s more than enough to keep the younger members of the audience happy, such as a train chase and a gleeful scene involving dancing horses. There’s also the inevitable bull in a china shop gag. But there are bigger issues to the fore as well, especially contemporary ones. The anti-war theme has been replaced by something closer to being true to yourself: standing apart from the crowd, in whatever way, is good.
And, while the story is set against a bullfighting background, that emerges as another theme. The once controversial Spanish national sport is now banned in Catalonia, but continues in other parts of the country and Ferdinand makes it very clear what happens to bulls that fight in the ring. The audience is spared the gory side of things, although Ferdinand’s blood in spilt in his fight with El Primero and he’s also on the wrong end of the matador’s sword.
So Ferdinand isn’t necessarily the film you might expect. It doesn’t have the brashness and vibrant colour of Saldanha’s Rio films, nor the same level of energy, but it’s warm and compassionate and it’s hard not to respond in the same way. At a smidge under two hours, it’s longer than it needs to be, especially for the youngsters. But the adults won’t mind. As we get into cold weather, snuggling up in the warmth of a good-hearted movie like Ferdinand is just what we all need.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.