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Review: Ferdinand (2017)

Ferdinand (2017)

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha

Premise: An animated film based on the book by Munro Leaf. Ferdinand (voice of John Cena) is a bull who lives the quiet life on a Spanish farm. When he is captured by a ranch that breeds animals for bullfighting, Ferdinand must either escape or fight for his life in the ring.

What Works: What is exceptional about Ferdinand is that the movie works at all. This is a family film about the bloody and savage spectacle of bullfighting. It shouldn’t work but it does and to their credit the filmmakers don’t run away from the implications of brutality. When Ferdinand is captured and sent to the bullfighting ranch he discovers that the bulls who aren’t selected to fight are sent to the butcher but those who do fight never triumph because the game is rigged. This is impressively dark and heavy for an animated feature; a lot of today’s animated films—even those by Pixar—play it pretty safe and avoid the melancholy or maturity of stories like Watership Down, The Secret of NIMH, or even Bambi. The title character of Ferdinand is a peaceful beast who doesn’t want to hurt anybody but the life of a bull is built around violence and the self-worth of these animals is invested in their ability to fight. And so the filmmakers have crafted a movie that is a none too subtle parable about masculinity. Ferdinand is a lightly disguised story about our expectations of young men, the way that society pushes them toward violence, and the toll that violence takes on everyone. That idea is just below the surface of the material and the filmmakers present it in a way that is clear without becoming preachy or didactic. The characters of Ferdinand are mostly likable. John Cena continues to prove his comic chops by voicing the lead in Ferdinand and he’s an agreeable presence. Kate McKinnon voices a goat who is the comic side kick and McKinnon’s timing and knack for vocal work makes her a natural fit with animation. 

What Doesn’t: The darkness at the heart of Ferdinand doesn’t match the film’s visual style, which is quite bright and colorful. In fact, there are a lot of radical tonal shifts in the movie and the style of the animation veers between realism and cartoonish silliness. Kate McKinnon is fun but the other attempts at comedy don’t land, especially the trio of snobby show horses who have inexplicable Austrian accents. In fact, for a movie that is set in Spain there isn’t a whole lot of Spanish character to Ferdinand. Most everyone speaks American English and a lot of the setting is generic. Ferdinand is built around the relationship between the bull and his child-owner Nina, voiced by Lily Day. Aside from the continuity problems—Ferdinand is adopted as a calf and grows up while Nina remains apparently the same age—this relationship isn’t as emotionally engaging as the film requires. It becomes extraneous to the movie even while it is supposed to be the heart of the story and all it does is give Ferdinand a sentimental bookend. There is some wasted potential in Ferdinand. The material is primed to do something more provocative and intelligent while still operating within the parameters of a family-appropriate movie. The filmmakers simply don’t take advantage of that. 

Bottom Line: Ferdinand has an uneven tone and the comic bits are hit and miss, but the movie is a success both as a parable and as a piece of family entertainment. The moviemakers don’t see the ideas through to their full potential but Ferdinand does actually have something to say.

Episode: #679 (December 24, 2017)