Back in 1936, ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ was quite an important children’s book. It was a huge bestseller and was banned from both Spain and Germany because the tale of a peaceful bull with no interest in bashing matadors with his horns was considered to be democratic propaganda. While the story has long since faded from the public consciousness, it still has historical importance. Not that the folks behind this big celebrity-voiced adaptation particularly care.
Although the basics of the allegorical narrative remain, it’s been twisted into yet another one of those “Believe in yourself” kiddie flicks that exist only to deliver slapstick and sentiment. The story starts with young Ferdinand as a kiddie bull who escapes his violent bullfighting training camp when he learns that his papa died in the ring. Fast forward to adulthood and Ferdinand is now a sweetheart voiced by John Cena working all his charms without any of his physical presence to add to said charms. Things go bad for Ferdie (note: no one calls him that) when an incident involving a bee causes him to smash up a store filled with rare china in a painfully obvious sight gag. That leads to him being forced back into bull training camp to learn how to bullfight. He’s not into it. In fact, when he finally finds himself in the ring, he tries to make peace in sweet ways. And so we get a longwinded and silly story about believing in oneself, not bucking to societal prejudices based on what we look like and so forth.
There’s nothing wrong with the messaging behind ‘Ferdinand’. It’s all very sweet and well-meaning. The tale has some value and is even at least thematically faithful to the ancient children’s book. However, it’s just not particularly fresh or necessary today. We’ve been here before. There’s even a Pixar movie in neighboring theaters that preaches many of these same messages. It doesn’t help that the movie very much feels like an unnecessary expansion of a short and simple story. The narrative keeps sputtering to a stop to cram in as many goofy characters, slapstick action scenes, and needless moments of CGI spectacle as possible. Nothing added to the original story brings any weight or importance or even decent laughs. The movie mostly waters down the source to make it as indistinguishable as possible from the dozens of other animated family films made each year.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising given that ‘Ferdinand’ is the latest project spat out of Fox’s animation studio. (It’s also likely to be one of the last now that Disney is buying Fox and… you know… Disney already has the animation thing covered.) This is the company that had a decent idea once with ‘Ice Age’ and then ran it into the ground with so many horrible and needless sequels that anyone old enough to be able to speak complete sentences has nothing nice to say about them.
Admittedly, the studio has been around long enough to know how to paint pretty pictures digitally in ways that look delightful on the big screen. ‘Ferdinand’ is well produced on a technical level. The voice cast is loaded with celebrities that adults can try to guess while their brains turn off. Everyone from Peyton Manning (yes, really) to David Tennant pops up, but only Kate McKinnon adds anything memorable, proving yet again that she’s infinitely more talented that the unfortunate projects she finds herself in.
In other words, ‘Ferdinand’ is another completely disposable animated family film. It’s no better or worse than all the ones you forgot existed last year and all the ones that will open big for one weekend in 2018 before quickly vanishing into obscurity. We’re on a treadmill with these sorts of releases now. They consistently make enough money that Hollywood will keep backing them, no matter how dire the results. If you’re desperate for a big screen cartoon to take undemanding small children to this holiday season and already saw ‘Coco’, then I guess this’ll have to do. It’s a shame there’s nothing better to say, but what do you expect? Any Hollywood movie opening opposite a blockbuster with ‘Star Wars’ in the title obviously isn’t something that the studio particularly believes in.