Adolf Hitler called “The Story of Ferdinand” “degenerate democratic propaganda” and ordered all copies burned. In spite of that or perhaps because of that, the story of the big bull with an even bigger heart became a publishing phenomenon, outselling ”Gone with the Wind” in 1938. The children’s book has never gone out of print and still sells in healthy amounts today.
Those sales will likely increase with the release of “Ferdinand,” a colourful animated 3D movie starring the voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Canavale from the folks who brought us “Ice Age” and “Robots.”
As a calf being raised at Casa del Toro to be a fighting bull Ferdinand (voice of Cena) asks his father, a fearsome bull, “Can I be a champion of not fighting?” More into carnations than combat, he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, chasing
Matadors in bullfighting arenas. When his father is killed in the ring Ferdinand hoofs it, running away to live on a flower farm.
He grows to be a fearsome looking bull, all chest and pointed horns, but remains the same sweet tempered creature he always was. Recaptured, he’s sent back to Casa del Toro and groomed for the ring or the slaughterhouse. Fight or food, those are his options. Selected by bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) Ferdinand, along with a goofy goat named Lupe (Kate McKinnon)—“ I’m here to calm you so you can maim and gore later,” she says.—and three devious hedgehogs named Uno, Dos and Cuartro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), he plans his escape.
The book is only 32 pages long but director Carlos Saldanha and team flesh out the story to feel organic to author Munro Leaf’s original vision of passive resistance in the face of violence. Pulled to ninety minutes, the story shows some stretch marks but remains likeable with lots of heart and plenty of gags.
The free-to-be-you-and-me anti-bullying messages are cleverly woven into the fabric of the tale. Ferdinand challenges the status quo, defying others to put him in any kind of box. It’s a powerful and timely lesson of acceptance wrapped in a colourful package that should delight kids. It should be noted that while the bull in a China shop gag will elicit giggles the scenes in the meat packing plant and the climactic bullfight might be too intense for very little children.
The voice work is lively and fun. As Lupe, McKinnon brightens things up in every scene she’s in but is underused in the latter part of the film.
“Ferdinand” could have used more Spanish flavour on the soundtrack. Bland pop songs fill the ears when flamenco might have been more evocative of the time and place but by and large this is an engaging no bull kid’s story with a valuable upfront message.