By: Arlene Allen
Most people are familiar with the classic story of Ferdinand the bull who preferred to smell the flowers rather than fight. Munro Leaf’s classic children’s book has been timeless pretty much since it hit bookshelves in 1936 and its message of peace, contentment and brotherhood has perhaps never been more appropriate. Twentieth Century Fox has created an animated fest for the eyes that not only introduces Ferdinand to a brand new generation, but gives him an entire circle of friends for fans of all ages to enjoy.
The story begins at El Casa del Toro, the best bull ranch outside of Madrid and one that has a reputation for supplying the best bulls for the bullfights in that great city. The young calves compete amongst each other to see who can be most like their heroic dads, all except for Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy). He’d much rather take care of and smell the small flowers in the barnyard. He is bullied by the other male calves, but nothing can ruffle his calm until Ferdinand’s own father is chosen for the ring and never brought home.
Ferdinand escapes and quite literally finds his dream home with Nina (Julia Saldanha) and her dad Juan (voiced by Juanes), who own and operate a flower farm. For many years the bull is content, but there is a problem. He grows. And grows and grows and grows. He becomes the biggest, fiercest looking bull in Spain, even though his heart is as soft and beautiful as a flower. Ferdinand (now voiced by John Cena) doesn’t realize he has outgrown his role in the annual flower festival until he inadvertently wreaks havoc in Juan and Nina’s small village (including a flat out, fall down, screamingly hilarious take on the “bull in a china shop” trope) and finds himself captured and taken back to his former home, El Casa del Toro.
Everyone is terrified of Ferdinand, except his former calf-mates who are not impressed by him, especially his former tormentor and group bully Valiente (Bobby Cannavale). Valiente is boss now and he isn’t going to let anyone usurp his role, especially not some flower sniffer. But El Casa del Toro’s owner is seeing dollar signs and Ferdinand’s fate in the ring looks pretty much sealed, especially when the famous matador El Primero shows up looking for a bull for his farewell fight.
While the animation is not quite up to Disney/Pixar standards, it’s bright, colorful and engaging. Some scenes, like the ones in the train yard, do have a heavy-handed GCI look, but that’s just a curmudgeonly old critic’s viewpoint. Young audiences will be too swept up in the fun and suspense of the storyline to even notice it. The scenes at the flower farm are so breathtaking you can almost smell the various blooms and that makes up for any other minor animation flaws.
There is a good deal of humor (I already mentioned the china shop scene), but there’s also Kate McKinnon as Lupe the Calming Goat who sleeps in a bucket, the creative and roguish hedgehogs Una (Gina Rodriguez), Dos (Daveed Diggs) and Cuatros (Gabriel Iglesias). We don’t talk about Tres. There is also Angus, the Scottish bull (get it, Angus beef?) who is voiced by David Tennant and comes complete with a doctor joke (He was in “Doctor Who” afterall). The dance off between the bulls and the stuckup Lipizzaner horses – which is hysterical just to say – is a showstopper.
However, there’s also a good deal of gruesome darkness, which fortunately will go over the head of the smallest of viewers and will likely make vegetarians of older kids. Right behind El Casa del Toro is the chophouse where if you don’t make the cut for the ring, you make another sort of cut. There’s a rather intense and harrowing escape sequence throughout the chophouse that parents may be grateful for a head’s up; while all ends well, it’s intense. Of course, bulls don’t have the happiest of fates awaiting them in the bullfighting arena either and it’s definitely a good thing that the bullfighter is portrayed as an arrogant windbag who’s not going to enjoy his retirement quite the way he expected.
The vocal cast is excellent. John Cena is both strong and gentle as the grown Ferdinand. Bobby Cannavale is great as tough guy Valiente (as well as Valiente’s dad), Jerrod Carmichael plays Paco the dog with the traitorous tail. Former football player Peyton Manning voices Guapo, the unlucky bull chosen for the chophouse. Anthony Anderson plays the scrawny bull Bones, who figures his fate is sealed. Nothing needs to be added about McKinnon and Tennant, who are scene stealers even in an animated movie.
The soundtrack is sure to take up a semi-permanent residence in the family vehicle’s audio system. It’s upbeat and infectious and includes songs by Nick Jonas, Juanes, Pitbull and Los Del Rio.
In today’s world the messages of anti-bullying, of not wanting to fight not making one a coward, of that it’s okay to be yourself, of taking time to smell the flowers and appreciate the small things are more important than ever. Ferdinand does an excellent job of getting these and the values of love, friendship and family across and that makes it the perfect family holiday movie. It’s adorable and heartwarming and well worth seeing.