While the fate of Blue Sky Studios hangs in the balance with the acquisition of Fox properties by Disney in recent weeks, the animation studio was hoping for at least one more hit with its only offering in 2017, “Ferdinand”. Featuring a subversive message and some pretty decent animation “Ferdinand” is not really a bad film, but it’s not great either and is a project that may have trouble finding respect beyond its youthful audience. Let’s dive into the final animated release of 2017. This is my review of “Ferdinand”.
Based on the children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand”, “Ferdinand” features John Cena as the titular bull who embraces life as a pacifist, challenging the established roles of bulls in bullfights. When his size and love of flowers inadvertently gets him into trouble Ferdinand is returned to the same bullfight facility where he grew up and attempts to prove to his childhood bullies that fighting is not the only way to live their lives. However when circumstances pit him against a champion bullfighter Ferdinand is forced to challenge his convictions or face the possible results of losing in the ring.
Surprisingly “Ferdinand” actually stays true to its source material in many ways. The original book presents the titular bull as an animal who would rather sit and smell the flowers, literally, than partake in a bullfight. It’s a tale about challenging established roles and being who you are in the face of others who would rather tear you down. It’s a fitting story for a film geared more toward children and provides a pretty unique and interesting character and backdrop to bring these morals to the forefront.
The problem is “Ferdinand” doesn’t quite hold up as a very well crafted animated movie in general despite having a decent story behind it. As a positive “Ferdinand” looks great with smooth and somewhat colorful animation and character designs that help each individual animal stand out. Beautiful scenery and atmosphere make “Ferdinand” one of Blue Sky Studio’s smoothest projects in terms of design alone, even if it doesn’t quite follow suit with more advanced animation styles the studio has utilized for past projects like “Rio” and “The Peanuts Movie”.
Another positive to note is the film’s lead, John Cena, who lends his booming voice to Ferdinand and brings the character to life in a way I truly didn’t expect. Cena shows his chops as a performer giving true personality and charm to the massive bull who would rather love than fight. Cena may not always turn in the best performance when he becomes involved with a project but here he seems to truly enjoy becoming Ferdinand and while I do believe he could have done a bit better at making the voiceover convincing, for a man who is still seeking a career defining performance to fall back on in film this is a big step in the right direction.
Sadly this is where the good ends and the bad begins, starting with the remaining cast. To present an unpopular opinion I just have to say Kate McKinnon, who plays Ferdinand’s goofy comic relief goat friend Lupe, continues to be among the most obnoxious comedy actresses in the genre today. I want her to be funny, really I do, but like many of her other strange performances as the quirky addition to the cast her turn as Lupe comes off as pretty bland and over the top adding no real humor to the film at all in my opinion.
The remainder of the cast is composed of David Tennant, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, Gabriel Inglesias and even Peyton Manning and with the exception of pretty spot on performances by Tennant (who steals the show as a Scottish bull) and Cannevale (who portrays the secondary antagonist and Ferdinand’s childhood rival Valiente) every performance feels basic, bland and, in some cases, completely miscast. At times is really felt like the filmmakers just put whatever relevant big name they could find into roles to boost the film’s star power with many characters lacking truly defined personalities or proving to be forgettable and poorly characterized altogether. I mean the film is based in Spain and several characters sport more American accents using American lingo and American clichés. I mean yeah many movies alter their characters to suit the western audience, but in the case of “Ferdinand” there was almost no attempt by some of the actors to even try to act like their animals were anywhere near Spain, let along living there, a poor decision considering Pixar’s “Coco” managed to entertain while ALSO embrcing the culture of its setting much more fully. Hell there are three obnoxious pretentious horses in this film with pretty out there foreign accents with more cultural identity than most of the main characters in our group of heroes.
Let’s pretend for a minute that I decided not to nitpick at the cultural qualities of the film. Let’s say for a second that it’s a children’s film and kids don’t care. Alright so then we look at the story and while the film does a fine job avoiding a sense of self-importance by providing its central message of pacifism and subversion in a more casual manner than expected, the path to these revelations is littered with horrible and cringe worthy moments that I found just completely unneeded. Many animated movies try to shoehorn in moments of fun and oddball delight to satisfy their youthful target demographic but even with that in mind the amount of pandering in “Ferdinand” is hard to overlook. There’s a completely unneeded dance battle scene, several goofy escape scenes, the aforementioned lack of cultural identity in characters that I feel may have been in some way a blatant attempt at dumbing down the characters to satisfy this audience, and a cute little bunny that adds nothing to the story at all considering Ferdinand’s compassion was well established before this little nonsense came to be.
John Cena’s decent acting and the controlled presentation of the story’s moral center were the biggest highlights of this film are the saving graces of “Ferdinand” in the big picture. The movie fails in MANY ways but it gets everything right that it needed to in order to create a passable basic animated feature that, while forgettable, has enough charm and emotional depth from its central character’s story to at least offer something of substance worth mentioning. The problem is there’s way too much flair and unwarranted add-ons to allow a simple story to truly come into its own on its own. The filmmakers tried to force “Ferdinand” to be fun, memorable, and significant, forsaking its worthy premise and stripped down story for the sake of typical modern children’s film clichés. This movie deserved to be much better than it was and should have been a chance for Blue Sky Studios to rise above all these dumb little things that hurt the film in very big ways,
Still, I can’t fault “Ferdinand” as an unwatchable film, just a disappointing one. It’s important to remember that it is a children’s film and there is a certain among of goofiness than needs to be there to capture the imagination of children. However, that doesn’t mean filmmakers should have settled for the most basic examples of children’s film pandering to get the job done. “Ferdinand” was an interesting viewing experience for me. Where it was good it was very good, where it was bad is was pretty bad, and it just seemed that there was too much good from its story and animation to call it an absolute failure but too much bad to call it a work of art by any means. It’s simply passable at best and depending on how much your willing to overlook “Ferdinand” is either a charming children’s tale with a good moral center or a train wreck that missed the mark in all the worst ways.