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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 09:52 pm

Passable "Ferdinand" a Sweet, Timely Fable

Used as a metaphor in The Blind Side and originally seen as a piece of political propaganda, Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand has been a staple of children’s libraries since the 1940’s, selling on average 6,000 copies a week since its publication in 1936.  The titular bovine would much rather spend his time smelling flowers rather than engaging any matador in the bullring, his gentle side trumping expectations of his fierce appearance.  Seen as a call for pacifism during the tumult in Spain that would eventually result in that country’s civil war, 30,000 copies of the book were handed out in Germany at the end of World War II to promote peace.

Comfort goat Lupe (voice by Kate McKinnon) and Ferdinand (John Cena) make for an odd couple in Ferdinand.

Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

No such heady concerns are at play in Carlos Saldanha’s new animated adaptation of the tale. (Disney made an eight-minute version in 1938 that won the Oscar for Best Short Subject) While Ferdinand is still the same old flower-loving bull, there’s a menagerie of other critters added to the story who all have their own special quirks, each of them looking for a place where they can just be who they want to be.  The themes of acceptance and inclusion are the driving forces behind this version and the message is delivered in as pleasant a way as you can imagine. 

Voiced with a sense of charm you wouldn’t expect from professional wrestler John Cena, Ferdinand is a resident of Casa del Toros where bulls are trained to be fierce combatants in the ring.  While his peers are getting their angry on, our hero is more concerned with nurturing a hidden flower. However, when he learns that his father – picked to a bullfighting tournament in Madrid – won’t be returning to the farm, he decides to take a powder and escapes to a nearby farm where he’s raised by Nina (Lily Day), a girl who just lets him be who he wants to be.

Of course, one’s destiny is hard to escape and Ferdinand eventually has to return to Casa del Toros and ultimately enter the bullring.  Before this happens, the middle patch of the film runs a bit too long, with some obvious narrative planning employed to get the scant original material up to feature film running time.  It’s not without its charm, but a sense of “Let’s get on with it,” does set in.

Ferdinand takes a wrong turn in a china shop in Ferdinand.

Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 Some great comic relief is provided by SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Lupe, a manic goat that doesn’t quite understand her role as a “calming goat,” as well as a trio of hedgehogs Uno, Dos, Cuatro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs & Gabriel Iglesias) who have too much time on their hands.  (A note of warning – don’t ask what happened to Tres).  Equally fun are the visual gags Saldanha employs, especially those involving Ferdinand’s impressive bulk in awkward situations.

It has not been a banner year for animation, as nothing from the major studios has proven to be groundbreaking or even visually arresting.  (All true accolades belong to the striking Loving Vincent.)  Ferdinand isn’t going to turn the tide as far as 2017 is concerned, but it’s a passable enough diversion that will appeal to young viewers and provide the sugar that will help the medicine that is its message go down rather easy.  

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