In a holiday movie season boasting a new Star Wars movie with the highly anticipated return of Jedi Luke Skywalker, a movie combining all of DC Comics’ most beloved superheroes and a colorful tale revolving around the Land of the Dead, you might think an animated movie about a bull doesn’t stand the Christmas ghost of a chance of reverberating with kids young and old at the box office this month. However, Ferdinand has a lot of heart and deserves more than just a casual blip on your radar.
It features a solid cast, a beautiful Spanish backdrop and a beloved story that was first published as a children’s book in 1936 (“The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf). I came into this knowing nothing at all about that book, but it’s interesting to think that such a tale was written when most of the world was preparing to battle the Nazis in World War II (as a matter of fact, Hitler famously banned the book in Germany for being “degenerate democratic propaganda”). For you see, Ferdinand is the story of a pacifist bull who doesn’t understand why he’s forced into a life of violent bullfighting when all he would rather do is roll around in fields of flowers. Needless to say, the book was considered a bit controversial when it first came out. ‘Merica needed to fight the Nazis. ‘Nuff said. It wasn’t always a popular choice to promote pacifism, especially among impressionable young minds. However, somewhere along the way, the book found its footing and it was even made into a short animation by Walt Disney in 1938. But this is the first time it’s been given the big screen treatment and many would argue it was long overdue.
Casting WWE wrestler John Cena as a bull isn’t that far of a stretch of the imagination. The man is built like a powerful bull and yet I want to believe there is a soft, tender side to him much like his animated character Ferdinand. I don’t want to say it was typecasting, but it seemed like a match made in heaven to me. Football hero Peyton Manning voices a vain bull named Guapo, while Bobby Cannavale plays the bull-headed Valiente and Anthony Anderson gets his comedic chops in as Bones, a rather smallish bull who doesn’t pose much of a threat in the arena. Jeremy Sisto gets a small turn as Ferdinand’s father, while David Tennant gets to have a bit of fun as a Scottish bull named Angus. (I haven’t yet watched the reboot of Duck Tales, but I bet Angus sounds a lot like his Scrooge McDuck.) However, the real piece of genius casting is that of SNL star Kate McKinnon as Lupe. I don’t know how to say this without it sounding a bit condescending, but Kate McKinnon was born to play a calming goat. I really enjoyed watching – or rather listening – to her doing her thing, trading barbs with the bulls. It was perfection.
How many of us feel as if we were born into a life that was chosen for us rather than one we have chosen for ourselves? While that isn’t really true for the majority of us despite our feelings, that is precisely the case for Ferdinand. He was born on a Spanish villa created solely for the purpose of breeding champion bulls for the all-powerful matadors to choose to do battle with in the huge arenas of Madrid. Life for a bull in Spain has rather bleak prospects: you’re either a fighter or you’re meat. I actually thought this was a bit of a harsh dose of reality for children to learn, as you actually witness bulls being carted away to a slaughterhouse to be chopped into meat because they weren’t considered valuable enough to become prized bulls in the arena. (No actual chopping is shown, thank goodness.)
I suppose we shouldn’t shield our children entirely from the ways of the world, but it provided a sharp contrast in the movie. On the one hand, you have all the beauty of Spain translated rather well into animation and the centuries-old cultural pride of matadors and bullfighting in what I thought was a time-honored sport of tradition and courage. Turns out there are far more cruelties to the sport than I’d ever imagined. I didn’t realize the bulls are usually killed. Maybe I’m a naïve American, but I thought they just kind of danced around each other in the arena, much like boxers in the ring, until one or the other gets subdued by their opponent. The custom seems rather barbaric to me now, and I can certainly sympathize with a bull who wishes to escape this cruel life he was born into at the hands of men. For the bull, it doesn’t seem to matter if you win or lose. Either way, you’re the loser, as the matador probably wants to mount your horns upon his wall of fame. There aren’t enough Ninas in this world – the little girl who found Ferdinand after he had run away from his captors and raised him on her father’s flower farm until society deemed him a threat and sent him back to the world he’d escaped.
There are things I liked about Ferdinand and things I could have personally done without. One criticism I have is there are a lot of characters to keep track of – in addition to the bulls and the goat and the people, you also have a trio of tricky hedgehogs (Uno, Dos and Cuatro – we must never speak about what happened to Tres) and a trio of uppity German horses with a superiority complex who insist on having a dance-off with the bulls for bragging rights. Maybe your kids will love these characters, but I thought they were a bit ingratiating. And don’t even get me started on the bulls driving the truck!
I found Ferdinand to be a charming character and I would rather have seen more emphasis placed on him and his pacifist philosophy. Maybe life would be better if we’d all just stop and smell the flowers like Ferdinand. This movie also presents a wonderful message about not bullying others for having different viewpoints than you. Ferdinand isn’t a coward or a wimp because he chooses not to fight. If anything, he proves that it often takes more courage not to fight. Men don’t always have to be warriors – stoic and strong. It’s perfectly okay for a man to be sensitive and care for bunnies, flowers and those who are perhaps too weak to defend themselves. Thank you for teaching that invaluable lesson, Ferdinand.
Want to see Ferdinand and judge for yourself? Click on the image below to buy your tickets now, and be sure to come back and tell us what you thought!