Bullfighting has been a controversial sport for centuries. Some see it as an important cultural tradition, a noble sport or an art form, while others find it to be barbaric. Blue Sky’s new animated feature Ferdinand doesn’t feature any large anti-bullfighting demonstrations, but it does showcase an unconventional protagonist who engages in passive resistance against the institution.
This film is themed by director Carlos Saldanha around defying traditions, albeit with some of the trademark style of humor the studio is known for. This is both an extension of the original Munro Leaf story, and a completely different style of cartoon than the classic Disney short from the 1930’s.
Still, the movie generally adheres to the core themes of the general Ferdinand story, in spite of its more comedic lean. There’s nothing in this film that would traumatize the younger viewers it’s aimed at, but it doesn’t shy away from the reality of what happens to the bulls at the end of each fight- as Ferdinand tragically learns as a young calf, when his father fails to return home after being chosen for a match. Credit should go to the animators, because Ferdinand’s teary expression as he runs away into the night is impactful.
Fortunately, he escapes to a barn that just so happens to be owned by a kind farmer (Juanes) and his daughter (Lily Day), where he’s raised in a happier and more loving environment. As an adult, the oversized flower-loving bull is performed by WWE superstar John Cena as more of an oversized puppy than the behemoth he actually is. But when Ferdinand secretly follows Nina to a flower festival, his hugeness causes enough issues to where he’s sent back to the old camp.
Even with the legendary matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) looking for the perfect bull for his retirement match, Ferdinand still has no interest in duels, something lead bull Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) can’t understand. The giant black bull has up-and-down relationships with the other animals, both relating to his size and personality.
These include a funny scene where he crashes and wipes out to avoid smashing a stray rabbit, a rather heartfelt scene with a young bull named Bones (Anthony Anderson, showing some nice emotional range) and a dance-off with a snobby trio of horses.
I imagine the supporting cast will be a big factor that makes or breaks Ferdinand with people. The pacifist bull enlists the aid of three clever hedgehogs, Una, Dos and Cuatro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias respectively) in his escape plan, and tries to convince the other bulls and a motormouthed goat named Lupe (Kate McKinnon, chewing all of the scenery in sight) to join him.
But at Casa Del Toro, training and fighting is all they know, and she’s more interested in training Ferdinand to be a top contender than leaving. She could probably be the greatest goat-coach of all time if she could only control her garbage-eating habits.
Most of the slapstick is pretty fun and never feels too crass, even if some of it comes off like extra padding to stretch out the film’s length. One scene where Ferd delicately maneuvers through a china shop has a classic cartoon charm that isn’t seen as often in modern kids’ entertainment.
It’s obvious this version of the story is set in contemporary times- the animals pick a thumping techno number for their dance-off- but Ferdinand avoids the usual pop culture references found in a lot of kids’ movies, and mainly relies on its cast’s personalities. The animation on the animals, who have some pretty cute designs (the main character and the hedgehogs notably) is bouncy and appealing, and their movement looks much better than the humans- who feel a bit stiff in some scenes.
One factor that stands out in this film is the strength of the voice acting. McKinnon is a massive ham as Lupe, to a point where I can see how some would find her overbearing, but there’s a degree of sweetness to the character. Cena’s Ferdinand is boyish and gregarious, but also firm in his convictions, something evident in the climax- which actually doesn’t rely on much dialogue. It’s a hoot watching him tease Jerrod Carmichael’s dog Paco, who adorably wags his tail whenever he sees the steer but constantly denies it.
Sometimes Ferdinand is torn between being elegant and silly, but overall this is an endearing and funny children’s picture that’s rather poignant when it needs to be. It doesn’t break any major ground in terms of animated films- I wouldn’t say this is in the tier of Your Name or Coco, so far as my top picks this year. But I was pleasantly surprised by this little romp, which also has an admirable anti-bullying message that isn’t forcibly preached to the audience. Older viewers might not be interested, but for families I’ll gladly recommend it.