Blue Sky Studios delivers a Christmas gift to families in the form of a lovable bull, named ‘Ferdinand’. Based on Robert Lawson’s children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’, the film revolves around Ferdinand (John Cena), a Spanish Fighting Bull who prefers smelling the intoxicating scents of flowers and practicing non-violence rather than chasing red cloths held by matadors in arenas. Because of this, Ferdinand lacks the kind of inspiration that comes with being proud in a career of choice. But when disaster comes to him, he is taken to a fighting stadium, and Ferdinand needs to decide if he is a fighting bull or a flower smelling, generous bull, in order to earn his freedom. Along the way, Ferdinand meets and befriends some colorful characters who inspire him to become all who he was destined to be. ‘Ferdinand’ is directed by Carlos Saldanha, and is rated PG for rude humor, action, and some thematic elements.
During a year when animated film is kind of having an off year, the door to the hearts of its youthful audience is certainly open for a bull of this magnitude to come charging through. Even still, ‘Coco’ warmed the souls of many a few weeks ago with its unwinding spin of Mexican tradition that enlightened many of its viewers. In the same vein, ‘Ferdinand’ tries to do the same, but with only about half of the success. Blue Sky Studios is definitely getting better overall in their big screen productions, as ‘Ferdinand’ is arguably their best film yet. It proves that this company can turn a profit long-term if they tighten up the rendering of their artistic probe and drive it home with enough heartfelt sentiment to boot. Currently however, there’s still a lack of importance in story direction that limits the adventure aspect of this movie terribly. For family holiday cinema, it’s pretty much a sure thing, but for addition replay value, I worry that something like this will get lost in the fold amongst forgettable animated features that will inevitably only be remembered for its overabundance of zany characters that far too often rub together and offer nothing of variety to feast on.
This is a film that is based off of a very tight children’s book, so in adapting it for a 97 minute feature, the screenwriters definitely had their work cut out for them. Immediately, we are treated to an impactful and dramatic introduction to Ferdinand and his surrounding friends in the way of the sport of bull-fighting. What the script does so well here and eventually midway through the film, is that it takes a very responsible and educative form of storytelling with animal cruelty and the kind of consequences from a sport this violent being nothing more than a form of human entertainment. I like this because it really tugs at your heartstrings and feeds into Ferdinand’s approach at not wanting to fight for the rest of his life. In addition to this, there’s a solid dual-message being played out that preaches you to be who you want to be in a world that is trying to command you in the wrong direction, as well as appearances not being everything. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of low fruit to be hanging here, as the film’s second act opens itself up to the personality of too many characters that offer very little to the value of this script. On this direction, the film kind of becomes more about the characters and less about the journey of Ferdinand himself, who is limited with many pause buttons along the way to keep him from reaching his destiny. One question that I had between Ferdinand’s two settings in the film is how human characters in each knew his name despite him not having a name tag and there not being any correspondence between them. I guess it’s one of life’s many mysteries.
As for some of these characters, they are basically amped up versions of the personalities that their live action counterparts conjure up. Kate McKinnon as Ferdinand’s calming goat is so irritating that I found myself cringing any time she is on-screen. David Tennant’s Angus is basically an Irish stereotype, working in enough puns and digs at Irish culture that distinguish just how one note he is. There’s also no shortage of comedic cast. As the rule for any animated film these days, there is also a trio of supporting characters who serve as the minions of sorts to Ferdinand, except this time the film is generous enough in giving us two different versions of this angle, with a trio of hedgehogs and horses harvesting the comedic energy for the film. Frankly, the only things I found funny about this film is when Cena is the central focus and being allowed to improvise against the observational humor that is being targeted with Ferdinand’s size in focus. Cena himself offers a strong delve into his debut starring role, and there’s much about his animated personality that crafts the title character into the lovable lug that we become saddled with. John himself sounds like he’s having so much fun under this title character, and that charismatic exuberance rubbed off on me throughout the film, making me wish for more of Ferdinand and less of the animals that he meets along the way.
Without question the biggest improvement for Blue Sky Studios is in their animated stylings in presenting us with arguably their most expansive rendering of backdrops to date. The hills filled with flowers stretch as far as the imagination allows them, and the Mexican town-side supplies an array of shops and horticulture that any mental traveler can indulge in despite possibly having never been there. My personal favorite perk of the animation here is definitely in the facial depictions that hammer home the emotional response in versatility that each scene is going for. Is it on the level of Pixar? Absolutely not, but for a studio whose usual animated characters feel like lifeless puppets, the inspiration in ‘Ferdinand’ feels much appreciated for the sleeping giant that may finally be coming awake. So much about Ferdinand’s desire and energy for what inspires him rests in the baby blue eyes that burn a hole into the reflection of the eyes off-screen that stare into them, and even the fluidity of fur movements on the animals is starting to look up. ‘Ferdinand’ could be the first step in getting Blue Sky to where it needs to be to compete, matching the layers of shadow and pixelation accordingly with the vibrancy of color that adorn their pictures.
The last thing that I wanted to talk about was the film’s musical accompaniment because it definitely deserves its own section. As for musical score, composer John Powell whips up an immersive journey through the hills of this foreign land that captures the essence beautifully. With so much influence from Spanish culture blending its way throughout Ferdinand’s adventure, the musical notes that Powell triggers offer a solid compromise of fiery energy and downtrodden dramatic pulse when the film requires it. There is simply no problem that I have with it. The film’s music soundtrack however? That’s another story. It’s true that there is only three songs that play throughout the film, but the decision for them all to be Pitbull songs is still something that makes me scratch my head. I myself am not a Pitbull fan, but that’s not the problem that I have. In trying to capture the Spanish sound of choice, a Puerto-Rican probably wouldn’t be my first choice. That’s not to be prejudice for one distinct direction or the other, but it’s clear with three out of three choices that they felt Pitbull would be the articulate measure in reflecting the vibe of the bull-fighting culture, and it couldn’t be any more wrong on that degree. Instead, his inclusion feels like once again an animated film’s cheap ploy at advertising some Top 40 favorites to sell Itunes downloads, and it’s what soils the sentiment in ways that a film like ‘Coco’ never fell for.
THE VERDICT – ‘Ferdinand’ is not all bull, for better or worse, but the visionary spark of some noteworthy animation, as well as some mature exploration for where its story takes us, supplants this as a worthy hour-and-a-half investment for families everywhere, this holiday. Cena grabs the bull by the horns, commanding Ferdinand with enough peppy touch and immense personality that make him ideal for protagonist following. Ultimately, the film’s lack of focus is its almost complete downfall, choosing to build the characters and not the story, but the honorable dual message cements this as a gently subversive sermon for kids and adults alike.