Children’s picture-book classic “The Story of Ferdinand” may not be quite the literary phenomenon it was 79 years ago, when Walt Disney adapted Munro Leaf’s pacifist parable into an Oscar-winning animated short, but that doesn’t make the character — a Spanish bull who simply refuses to fight in the ring — any less relevant or endearing today. In fact, while the news cycle may have momentarily shifted away from the serious issue of bullying, what better way to address it with kids than via the story of an actual bull who’s picked on by his peers?
Of course, there’s a world of difference between a seven-minute short and a 108-minute feature, and Fox’s “Ferdinand” — which has been vibrantly brought to life by director Carlos Sandanha (“Rio”) and the team at Blue Sky, the company behind “Ice Age,” “Robots” and the recent Peanuts feature — strains at times, but in what’s been an underwhelming year for big-studio animation, it’s the best of the bunch: sincere, likable, surprisingly funny, and overall true to its source material.
Expanding upon Leaf’s themes rather than sauntering off in its own direction (the way Blue Sky did with the relatively disappointing “Horton Hears a Who!”), the story team on “Ferdinand” has wisely preserved the beginning and end of Leaf’s book, connecting the two via that age-old screenwriting challenge — namely, how to flesh out that long second act. However, instead of feeling like mere padding, the movie’s middle stretch is by far its most satisfying, featuring an entire cast of supporting characters and a wealth of entertaining interactions between them.
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It’s here, at roughly the 30-minute mark that Kate McKinnon’s character, Lupe, makes her entrance. Like the Genie in “Aladdin” or Dory in “Finding Nemo,” she’s one of those comedic co-stars whose oversize personality steals the show — in this case, as a scrap-eating “calming goat” who’s anything but calm. Daffy, delirious and amusing just to look at with her wide eyes and poker-hand teeth, Lupe acts like a small-time boxing coach who’s finally got a shot at the heavyweight title. Except, Ferdinand has no interest in competing.
That’s an understatement, actually. Ferdinand is the original cartoon sissy, and the prototype for an entire category of animated movie character (from “The Reluctant Dragon” to “Shark Tale’s” vegetarian hero) — which is to say, he would quite literally prefer to smell the flowers than engage in all the macho things the other bulls do. Whereas his brawny father is proud to be chosen for a high-profile bullfight, the young Ferdinand is described as “soft” by his peers. Except, as he grows up (to be voiced by John Cena) and we come to know him better, Ferdinand actually demonstrates the strongest instincts of the lot.
One of the qualities that has made Leaf’s book such an enduring classic has been the fact that different readers have been able to project their own values onto Ferdinand over the years. To some extent, that ends here, as Saldanha and his team are obliged to define his character more specifically, but they’ve done such a marvelous job of it that he remains the kind of protagonist who’s a cinch to identify with — especially after the script reveals that every bull’s fate is either the “chop shop” or death by sword in the ring. Suddenly, Ferdinand’s cowardice starts to look like common sense.
Already an awkward fit for the screen’s widescreen format, Ferdinand’s size supports its own string of gags, including the laugh-out-loud bull-in-a-china-shop sequence and equally hilarious run-in with a tiny pink bunny featured in early trailers. Something doesn’t quite add up in the opening stretch (Ferdinand escapes the Casa del Toro and is taken in by a girl called Nina, who doesn’t age as her bull grows too big for the house), suggesting that there may have been heavy rewrites late in the game, though the group dynamics are golden once he’s among his kind.
The bulls have a long-running beef with the fancy show ponies in the neighboring field (led by heavily accented German comedian Flula Borg), which escalates to an elaborate dance-off, of all things. “Ferdinand” may have a serious message — “It looks like weird is the new normal,” argues a movie whose hero is a selfless, non-violent fella with the courage to do his own thing — but it never forgets that it’s a cartoon. As such, it’s free to indulge in the sort of silliness the medium so wonderfully supports (including the kind of squash-and-stretch gags that work best with jumbo creatures).
As big as Ferdinand may be, it’s mostly all heart, and it’s tough not to love a character who’s so instinctively concerned about everyone else’s well-being, from the carnation he waters as an uncertain young calf (in a rare break from other animated animals, Ferdinand is actually cuter as an adult) to the ultra-competitive rival bull(y), Valiente, who stomps the flower just to spite him. Borrowing relatively little from Robert Lawson’s original illustrations, all of these creatures have been designed to serve the story first, with any tie-in and toy considerations coming after the fact, and as such, there’s a purity to both their look and personalities.
Arriving in theaters a mere month after “Coco,” “Ferdinand” might feel less culturally engaged than Pixar’s colorful celebration of Mexico’s Día de Muertos, although it should be noted that of the two, it’s the one with a Latino director (Saldanha hails from Brazil), while the ensemble boasts its share of Hispanic actors (including Gina Rodriguez and Gabriel Iglesias as two-thirds of a hedgehog trio, Bobby Cannavale in the role of Valiente, and Miguel Ángel Silvestre as retiring matador El Primero).
Though “Ferdinand” takes place mostly in and around Madrid, not Mexico, better music (as opposed to Nick Jonas’ bland “Home” and John Powell’s serviceably generic score) would have gone a long way to enhance its heritage. As it is, audiences have to stick around halfway through the credits (past a bonus scene worth waiting for anyway) to hear anything that sounds remotely Latin. That said, the virtual locations, color palette, and voice work (including a few lines of Spanish-language dialogue) certainly reflect the world of bullfighting, even if the film’s existence could be very bad news for the already controversial sport.