“Where do you think the word bull comes from? It ain’t from chicken.”
In a year that’s featured no animated film I’ve absolutely loved – Lego Batman was probably my favorite, followed closely by the rollicking Captain Underpants and the sneakily emotional Coco – the well-meaning Ferdinand has to be the biggest surprise of the bunch. One look at the poster and I imagined this shockingly mature picture to be as juvenile as Norm of the North, but that assumption was made prior to seeing that this story actually has something to say. The design of the film itself is a tad weak and inconsistent throughout, yet what it lacks in visual punches it makes up for with a heavy dose of heart. After all of the craziness that happened in 2017, audiences deserve Ferdinand’s enormous goodness.
For such a lively animated movie, Ferdinand actually opens with a great deal of sadness. This little bull is made fun of in a yard full of mean, threatening playground politics. His Father goes off to battle a great matador in a scene that’s like watching a boy send his idol off into war, unsure of his return. Then as he grows and is prodded and pricked to fight in the ring, the gentle giant Ferdinand (John Cena) escapes to find nirvana on a farm with a real family. He’d rather live there in peace, this tame bull wanting to inhale the scent of wild flowers instead of charging at red sheets. Ferdinand isn’t afraid to bring up fairly broad social issues in its playful storyworld, and it relies more on the weight of actions than the analysis of characters’ thoughts and words. I’d love to watch this movie on mute, if only to see whether or not its physical language truly transcends the English tongue. I’d like to think that it would.
At its heart, Ferdinand is essentially a monster movie with a friendly facade colored by a fair booth’s face paint. Typical to the genre, monsters don’t want to be called monsters, and more than anything they just wish upon a shooting star that somebody/something will see them as normal. Ferdinand finds this requited love in Nina (Lily Day), is stolen away from her, has to claw his way back home. He comes across old enemies, a screeching “calming” goat (Kate McKinnon), and a bunch of bad guy humans so lacking in detail that you couldn’t point them out on a prison line-up. And even when this smart film treads the waters of stupidity in its third act, it still swims instead of sinking from the weight of the unnecessary high action set pieces. Ferdinand’s brush strokes are inconsistent but its portrait of kindness is pleasantly coherent. It’s also gentle, and you’re able to hold it in the palm of your hand to adore, to appreciate, and to influence your behavior if you so choose. Ferdinand brings up the same injustices voiced in Zootopia, but I’d argue that it’s far more successful because it’s way more subtle with its metaphors and hot takes on human relations. Ferdinand abandons the striking ability of its horns and fights with a nimble finesse.
While every single human character in the film is completely uninspired, you couldn’t have a better one-two punch than Cena and McKinnon. Cena, an honest to goodness charitable man with a mean streak of kindness, brings his gigantic presence without the baggage of a massive ego. And McKinnon’s off-the-wall, all over the map personality suits the machinations of animation to a tee. There’s just way more to this film than meets the eye, and I’d go so far as to call it a family friendly animated version of Okja (one of 2017’s best films). Both movies handle similar themes with vastly different approaches, and while Ferdinand does itself no favors by temporarily stooping to the lows of its peers (worst of all is the egregious inclusion of a pointless Pitbull song), it still has the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed ability to win us over. In this story, Ferdinand wants to be more than the immediate knee-jerk reaction people have when they see him. I suggest you watch the film with the same kind of open-mindedness it deserves.
“You’re more than just a set of horns.”
Rating: 4 out of 5