Film Review: Ferdinand

Again, Fox sends in an animated animal act to do battle with 'Star Wars' for the Christmas trade: a peace-loving bull who won’t fight—don’t ask him. Well, at least this beats the hell out of another overdose of 'Alvin and the Chipmunks.'
Major Releases

If that Spanish bull named Ferdinand wasn’t the first to stop and smell the flowers, he is certainly the most famous, and Ferdinand (the 2017 film) celebrates that fame.

Munro Leaf dashed off this pacifistic mammal in pencil on six sheets of yellow legal pad in 40 minutes back in 1936 and gave it to a friend, Robert Lawson, to illustrate. That combo created a bestselling children’s yarn beloved for generations. By 1938, The Story of Ferdinand was outselling Gone with the Wind and being turned into an Oscar-winning cartoon—Ferdinand the Bull—by Walt Disney, who wrapped the whole saga up in seven minutes flat. (Snow White, who won Disney an honorary Oscar the year before, did a cameo as one of Ferdinand’s many flower-flinging fans.)

This “remake,” which 20th Century Fox is lobbing against Star Wars in the holiday marketplace, boasts all the computer-generated bells ’n’ whistles of contemporary animation, weighing in at 108 minutes—making it the longest cartoon feature ever produced by Blue Sky Studios. It has more padding than a matador’s cummerbund.

Happily, none of this is dull. It’s frenetically eventful and usually fun—once you forgive the unnecessary plot tangents and irrelevant additions. Okay, so there’s the obligatory bull-in-a-china-shop scene, but it’s nevertheless calamitously entertaining.

The title toro (voice-casted with John Cena for no apparent reason other than his beefy persona) comes with a full complement of cohorts. First and foremost and emphatically funniest is Kate McKinnon’s Lupe, a calming goat who is a long way from calm, functioning primarily like Burgess Meredith to Cena’s Sylvester Stallone.

Further backup is provided by a trio of fur-ball hedgehogs (played by Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias and Hamilton Tony winner Daveed Diggs). Another hilarious threesome: the prissy Lipizzaner show-ponies (played by Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg and Sally Phillips) who square off for a “dance-off” with the bulls.

Blue Sky’s Carlos Saldanha, director of Rio and Ice Age as well as their sequels, hails from Brazil and has, fittingly, filled his film with mucho Latinos: Bobby Cannavale, Raul Esparza, Belita Moreno, even himself (as a screaming matador).

Miraculously, the story’s overriding message is not lost in all the extraneous detours and par-for-the-cartoon-course silliness: Ferdinand remains true to himself, smelling flowers rather than butting heads. And he’s right to resist the secret, silent agenda of Casa del Toros, a camp in rural Spain that trains bulls for Madrid’s arena.

A horror dawns on Ferdinand—much like the Holocaust allusion that stunningly manifested itself in Toy Story 3—that he’s in a death camp that issues one-way tickets to Madrid. Here, the reprieve that spares him death in the afternoon is the one that once won Robert Rich (read: Dalton Trumbo) the Oscar for The Brave One.

Six screenwriters—Ron Burch, David Kidd and Don Rymer for screen story; Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland for screenplay—are credited with refrying Leaf’s 40-minute concoction. As previously noted, there are a lot of side trips in this movie, but the beginning and the end are beautifully—brilliantly—connected by a red carnation. As a young calf, Ferdinand is bullied when a young bull crushes a red carnation into the ground; later, as a fully grown bull about to be sacrificed to a matador’s blade, he zeroes in on a red carnation thrown by the crowd and smells it.

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