The movie adapts source material that isn’t particularly suited to the mainstream animated approach
Ferdinand (John Cena) is the one gentle calf being raised on a ranch that provides bulls for the bullfights. When his father doesn’t return from a match, Ferdinand runs away and escapes the ranch. He ends up as the pet of the young daughter of a flower seller, and he lives an idyllic life on their little farm outside the city. But he accidentally goes on a rampage during a village flower festival, and is taken away to the very same ranch from which he started. There, Ferdinand continues to resist the violence of bullfighting, even as fate seems to lead him toward a match with Madrid’s greatest matador.
To the movie’s credit, it manages to preserve the original intent of the children’s book from which it is adapted. Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand is a seminal piece of pacifist literature, and the movie is more or less able to convey the story’s main ideas. But it does so while also trying to adhere to the principles of your standard zany children’s animated film. It makes for an odd fit at times, the film often reveling in the chaos that its bovine characters cause, finding humor in scenes of bulls running rampant in streets. And then it has to go back and get quiet in order to tie back to its greater themes.
The film expands the story by making more out of Ferdinand being an outsider. A lot of these animated movies kind of dance around the same idea: that it’s okay to be yourself. The film builds on the elements already present in the story in order to get to that same idea. There is a lot of talk in this movie about what bulls are supposed to be, and what they’re supposed to want to do. Ferdinand isn’t just a strange bull that just happens to prefer flowers over butting heads: he is someone who has to learn to stand for what he believes in. The film is more intent on painting Ferdinand as a courageous figure, his unwillingness to do harm a more active choice.
This is the crux of it: the film in general seeks to turn the story into something more active. The protagonist isn’t just passively avoiding the fights: he becomes a leader that brings other characters into his way of seeing the world. It’s an intriguing approach that doesn’t quite feel fully formed, because the same impulse often throws the story into its sillier antics. The story eventually gets back to the idea of peaceful resistance, but at first it has to get in all of its big, goofy set pieces that involve bulls barreling through a city, causing damage and fear wherever they go. It doesn’t quite fit together.
It’s a fine enough diversion overall, but there are just these incongruities all along the way. There is a sequence set in a slaughterhouse that feels like it should be played for horror, but is instead played for laughs. There is a dance battle in the middle of everything that kind of comes out of nowhere. For the most part, the film skates on being bright and colorful. The character designs are a little weird, but that might actually be a strength. The film is best when it goes against the norm. Voice performances are pretty solid. John Cena brings some real warmth to the main character, and it goes a long way.
Ferdinand certainly seems to mean well, but its overall approach leaves something to be desired. It runs up against the challenge of adapting a very short story into a feature film, and it does so by creating a second act that it mainly made up of big, goofy antics that kind of cut into the seriousness that it wants to convey in the very end. The thing is, maybe The Story of Ferdinand was never meant to be a big, mainstream animated film. It’s a contemplative little story book that just isn’t as crazy or antic-filled as this movie seems to want it to be.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.