As an adult, I hope for a couple things when I see a movie meant for children: the story makes me nostalgic for my own childhood, there is a bit of adult humor that go over the kids’ heads, and I could imagine the movie not driving me crazy in multiple viewings. Unfortunately, Ferdinand dashed any of those hopes, like a bull in a china shop. Get ready for more bull puns, folks, because that’s really what will get me through writing a negative review of a movie I truly wanted to enjoy.
Based loosely on the beloved children’s book The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf, the film takes fair liberties from the original story, which is a relatively short. The film, not so much: at an hour and forty eight minutes, it is already longer than most children’s films.
The film’s plot starts similarly to the book: Ferdinand, a sweet, mild-mannered young bull (voiced as an adult by John Cena) prefers floral appreciation over wrestling. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, he lives on a ranch that breeds bulls for fighting. He’s surrounded by a group of other young bulls, eager to be like their dads and have their moment of glory in the ring. When Ferdinand’s father (voiced by Jeremy Sisto) doesn’t return from a fight, Ferdinand panics and escapes the ranch. He somehow manages to hop on a train and flee. When he jumps off, he finds himself on a beautiful flower farm, which is run by a little girl named Nina and her father (voiced by the singer Juanes). Nina falls immediately in love with her new pet Ferdinand and treats him like a member of the family.
There’s a charming montage of their blissful friendship as Ferdinand grows from a gangly calf into a giant bull that somehow still can sleep in Nina’s bed at night. When Ferdinand can’t resist joining the family at the annual flower festival, he gets stung by a bee (similar to the book) and goes on a rampage around the normally peaceful event. He gets captured by animal control and sent back to the ranch where he previously escaped. All the little bulls that teased him have now grown, but not as big as Ferdinand. There’s Valiente (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), Bones (Anthony Anderson), Guapo (Peyton Manning… why?!), Maquina (mostly voiceless, but occasional grunts are done by Blue Sky Studios editor Tim Nordquist), and the addition of a new Scottish Highland bull Angus (inexplicable why a Scottish bull is in Spain, mostly it seems to be to get the vocal stylings of David Tennant). The audience then gets introduced to a ridiculous amount of comic relief side animal characters (Arabian horses with German accents and hedgehogs) that only seem to be an opportunity for more star powered vocal stylings. Kate McKinnon’s hilarity is wasted on the awful jokes given to the obnoxious goat Lupe; Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Iglesias voice the hedgehogs. The only positives these sidekicks bring to the table is one of my favorite moments in the film: a dance off between bulls and horses that provides a hilariously animated moment of a bull breakdancing. Just trust me, it’s really clever.
The movie takes a bit of an odd, moralizing platform about masculinity when a famous matador comes to town and the bulls are forced to compete in front of him. Those who lose out are sent to the chop house. The lesson that Ferdinand is forced to grapple with is that a bull is either a fighter or meat. He then gives the bull Guapo a speech about how it’s ok for bulls to feel their feelings after Guapo tries to fight back tears over a friend lost to the chop house. The dance-off I like so much is also a catalyst for Ferdinand to realize that, instead of fighting, he can use his fancy footwork in the ring. This strong focus on masculinity, along with a moment where Ferdinand realizes that the bull never wins and he must avenge his father, makes this movie feel truly geared towards boys. The audience was full of little boys ages 4-9 and they were LOVING the movie, cracking up at all the terrible jokes. There’s no mother cow like in the book, which I guess makes sense in the context of a bull farm. Nina is sweet but doesn’t really play an active role in the movie, beyond loving Ferdinand. Lupe the goat is just annoying and needy. I took my 3 year old daughter with me and when I asked who her favorite character in the movie was, she replied “Nina.” I was just very struck by the fact that this film really seemed to target boys and disregard a young female audience hoping for a character with whom they could connect.
The gender bias isn’t the only weird element to the film. Ferdinand is set in Spain and only the humans speak in Spanish accents. I mean forget the fact that they all speak English with those accents. All the animals speak in the exact voices of the celebrities voicing them. It’s almost a blatant slap in the face to voiceover actors. Also if you know the celebrity voice, like McKinnon’s, it can really take you out of the fiction of the film (and also feel bad that she has to perform such flat, pandering jokes). The only cute element of the vocal performances is that only the animals can talk to each other, the humans hear them just make animal noises.
The positives to the movie are that Cena plays Ferdinand’s voice very sweetly. All the animation of the animals is very cute and colorful. That seems to be Blue Sky Studios’ specialty (known for Rio and the Ice Age films): focus on making the animals appealing and the humans look stiff. This movie, even though it’s boy-centric, does keep the scary parts to a minimum and when they happen, they skims gracefully over them so the film’s story is easy for all ages. The moments of physical comedy are adorable: the bulls navigating Madrid traffic, the dance-off, and the final bullfight scene. The story also, though WAY too long for a children’s film, is a strong one to be based off such a short book.
The thing that truly turns this movie is the dialogue. It’s just so inauthentic and pandering. All the animals speak in this painful, slang heavy speak: “Stoked,” “Next level,” and “Spoiler alert” are some of the annoying phrases that will definitely keep this movie from feeling timeless. The incessant pseudo-clever catchphrase dialogue make this already long film feel endless. Let’s say it’s all more bullshit than a bull’s eye. It just feels like the kind of children’s film that your kids, nieces, nephews, and babysitting charges may beg to watch over and over again but as an adult you’ll dread having endure even once.