“Ferdinand” Charms and Irritates in Equal Measure

Ferdinand (Carlos Saldanha, 2017)

If you are a parent with young children, you could do a lot worse than take them to see Ferdinand, the new animated feature from Blue Sky Studios, the same company that gave us the Ice Age franchise. Like that series, this movie charms in many places, even while irritating in others. For every poignant moment, there is another pointless montage set to a contemporary pop song, or a dance-off, or some other silliness. Perhaps those are meant to keep the adults entertained, but they had the opposite effect on this viewer.

Based on the lovely 1936 children’s book The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, the film tells the story of a young Spanish bull – destined to die fighting a matador in the ring – who only wants to smell flowers, instead. Scrawny and timid as a calf, he eventually grows into a mighty gentle giant, which of course means that he will, indeed, attract the very attention he wishes to avoid. When a bee sting drives him temporarily mad, sending him crashing through a small town’s central plaza, his fate is sealed: the bullfighting ring it will be.

It’s hard to argue against the powerful message of tolerance and anti-violence preached by the authors of both the original tale and this movie. And though Blue Sky is no Pixar (Coco is still playing in theaters, if you want to see what real animation looks like), director Carlos Saldanha (with the studio since Ice Age) and his team do a credible job presenting the big emotional beats of the narrative. Unfortunately, their attempts at humor – involving German-accented horses (Warum? Ich weiss nicht!), among other things – often feel clumsily shoehorned into the plot for the sake of a stupid joke. Nevertheless, I shed a tear or two, so they’re doing something right. Either that, or the source material is just so magnificent that its brilliance shines through even the lamest of adaptations. You decide.

With the voice talents of John Cena (The Wall), Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters), Anthony Anderson (the father on ABC’s Black-ish), Bobby Cannavale (Adult Beginners) and David Tennant (Kilgrave on Netflix’s Jessica Jones), among others, Ferdinand has no shortage of star power. Does it matter? I have never understood the insistence of casting famous actors in animation, unless they have a particular skill at vocal performances. Everyone here is adequate, but the only actor who really stands out is McKinnon as a scrappy goat training Ferdinand (Cena) for his big fight. Hers is the kind of off-beat humor that is perfect as a counterpoint to the very real tragedy of bullfighting. But German horses? Nein!

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