December 26, 2017

Blue Sky’s “Ferdinand” Delivers Some Heart, Some Groans

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With all the hubbub over Star Wars, it’s easy to forget that any other movies came out this past weekend. Alongside the box office juggernaut came Ferdinand, the latest entry from Blue Sky Studios. Ferdinand is based off the 1936 classic children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand. It’s a story of a bull who doesn’t want to fight, but instead wishes to smell flowers. When he’s thrust into the arena, he ignores the provocations of the bullfighters and others. Such a simple story grew into a phenomenon, to the point that Adolf Hitler ordered it burned as “democratic propaganda.” Walt Disney adapted it into a Silly Symphony style short… but no other media has been made of it since.


Ferdinand, directed by Carlos Saldhana, opens with the titular character as a young calf. He lives in Casa de Toros, a ranch devoted to raising bulls for competition in the bullfighting ring. The other calves spar and push each other around, dreaming of being the fiercest bulls in the world. Ferdinand, though, dreams of tending to flowers, and refuses to fight anyone. One day, his father is taken to the bullfights… and he doesn’t come back. A frightened Ferdinand runs away, finding a family who takes him in as a pet. A couple years pass, and Ferdinand (now grown and voiced by John Cena) is enjoying his new life. Unfortunately, the world outside his family still views him as a dangerous creature. When he’s stung by a bee and frightens the village, Ferdinand is captured and shipped back to be trained for fighting.


The original book has a simple plot. Luckily, the film manages to keep it that way, without throwing in too much extra stuff. It manages to deliver the theme of pacifism triumphing over aggression.  Whenever Ferdinand sticks to its source material, it delivers some good heartfelt moments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always do that. The movie also feels the need to conform to the “Animated Movie for Kids” formula. Parent dies in the beginning? Check. Grating sidekick character? Check. Second act sadness scene? Check. A lot of times, things happen because “that’s what a kids’ movie is supposed to do,” instead of the characters making it happen naturally. It feels contrived, and when they abruptly get dark and serious, it doesn’t feel particularly earned.


As for the characters, you have some good ones and bad ones. John Cena, I must say, brings the title character to life with a very earnest and sincere performance. I can see him with a career in voice acting! His fellow bulls are also acted well, with Bobby Cannavale voicing rival Valiente. They are all eager to prove their worth in the ring, leaving Ferdinand the outcast — until they start to realize he might be onto something. You also have Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias voicing a trio of hedgehogs. They manage to balance providing comic relief, boosting the plot, and not overstaying their welcome.


One character that does overstay their welcome is Lupe, a goat that insists she’s Ferdinand’s best friend the moment he returns to the yard. Kate McKinnon provides the voice, a funny woman who unfortunately doesn’t get a lot of funny lines. She ends up screaming most what she says, and after a minute of screen time I was thoroughly done with Lupe.


And there are the horses. I’ve avoided talking about these guys so far, even though they’re the most memorable thing in the movie — and not for good reasons. They are a trio of horses who speak in heavy German accents, and make fun of the bulls for being “schtinky and ugly”. They’re painful stereotypes, and deliver lines like “I bet his parents are not even related!” Their rivalry with the bulls heats up in the middle of the movie, culminating in a dance battle. And then the horses dab.


I wish I was making this up.


A children’s story deemed so subversive that Adolf Hitler had the books burned…


…and Blue Sky put dabbing horses in the middle of it.


It symbolizes the greatest flaw in this movie. The filmmakers seem afraid that children will not be able connect to the movie if it’s only a sincere story. So, they have to include wacky details: look, this bull has a Scottish accent! That one is a robot! Oh look, there’s pop music playing while the hedgehogs dance!  I know that some filler is needed when you’re adapting a children’s book into a feature-length film. That filler still needs to have something of substance, or at least not take away from the story. So, even though they manage to keep the plot simple, and have some good genuine heart, whole chunks of the film will end up dated by New Year’s.


I’d say Ferdinand is a passable kids’ movie. It has a good message behind it, I’d even say an important message; there’s some talented voice actors; and the animators’ did good work. But… those dabbing horses! It panders far too much, to the detriment of the entire work. A fair chunk of characters are downright irritating. I wouldn’t outright recommend it. If you have kids that really want to see it, go ahead, but they’d probably get more out of the book anyways…


David Gouldthorpe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]