Inspired by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson's beloved book "The Story of Ferdinand," this Blue Sky Animation feature film is an unexpected late-season gem, a film released in awards season but without the usual awards season promotions and expectations.
It probably doesn't help that Ferdinand is being released alongside Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi.
Let's face it. Ferdinand ain't winning the weekend's box-office crown.
That's a shame. Really.
While Ferdinand is a little more Americanized than I would like it to be, especially in terms of its music, Ferdinand is also one of the year's best animated features. Certainly shy of the extraordinary CoCo, Ferdinand is still a marvelous adventure with a tremendous heart and a film that one can only hope finds an audience despite The Force being with those other guys.
Ferdinand tells the story of a giant bull with an bigger heart. Raised to be a fighter, Ferdinand is instead a lover and a rather gentle creature who longs to find a place where he can be the bull he is meant to be.
"The Story of Ferdinand," however, has always been a much bigger story than simply "be yourself." First published in Spain in 1936, we're talking pre-World War II here, this story of a bull that rejected bullfighting as his ultimate destiny was interpreted not just as a personal statement but as a cultural statement. Ferdinand was a revolutionary and Ferdinand the film truly brings that revolutionary to life.
The casting of WWE wrestler John Cena as Ferdinand is either hypocrisy at its finest or an absolute stroke of genius? My vote? It's a stroke of genius. While Cena has made his mark, and his fortunes, as an over-the-top wrestler whose brawn has left more than a few wrestlers bloodied, Cena the man is known as one of the kindest and gentlest souls among professional wrestlers and has granted more children's wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation than any other celebrity. Recently known for such films as Trainwreck and Sisters, Cena is both acknowledging the truth of who he is while defying those stereotypes.
He IS Ferdinand.
Ferdinand is a funny character, but it's a refreshingly different kind of funny that never comes at the expense of his uniqueness. We laugh with Ferdinand as he tries to learn how to live out these differences, but not because he lives out these differences.
There's a huge difference. It's a blast to watch.
I mean, c'mon, there has to be a "bull in a china shop" scene and, of course, there actually is one. Instead of feeling predictable and stereotyped, though, it is wonderfully realized and sweet and funny.
To anyone familiar with the source material, it won't come as a surprise that Ferdinand necessarily expands upon it. The story of how Ferdinand comes to discover what he hopes will be his forever home won't be shared here, but suffice it to say that Nina (Lily Day) is a little girl who embraces her big new friend and it's the kind of special friendship that we usually associate with our cats and dogs. Paco (Jerrod Carmichael) is Nina's mop-headed dog, a dog who fits nicely into his role of being a dog but can't seem to keep from wagging his tail when Ferdinand calls him "brother."
Weird is celebrated in Ferdinand as "the new normal" and the film's relentlessly good heart is always on display in a myriad of ways. Despite being bullied by his fellow bulls, voiced by Peyton Manning, David Tennant, Anthony Anderson, and Bobby Cannavale, Ferdinand is, indeed, a revolutionary and it becomes clear soon enough that his culture may very well shift if he truly persists.
Ferdinand, in a remarkably kid friendly way, also addresses unhealthy masculinity and dysfunctional gender roles. Adults will understand it completely, while all kids will be able to absorb the film's refusal to cater to such ridiculous stereotypes. As Lupe, a "calming goat" used to help manage the bulls, Kate McKinnon has a good number of the film's winning one-liners yet her vocal work also indicates a deeper understanding of what exactly is going on here that needs to be understood.
Ferdinand is an absolute winner, a joy-filled film filled with heart and humor and an embrace for all that makes us different and all that makes us wonderful. While the film's soundtrack features delightful and memorable tunes from the likes of Nick Jonas, Pitbull, and Juanes, it occasionally gets a little too pop-oriented for my own taste.
While there's no doubt a good majority of the world will be going to see The Last Jedi this weekend, why not be a little weird and go see Ferdinand for yourself?
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic