There’s been very little competition each Star Wars season ever since Alvin and the Chipunks: The Roadchip. But Blue Sky Studios veteran, Carlos Saldanha, expanded upon The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson without fully sacrificing too much of the spirit. When it comes to Blue Sky, they’re on the lower end of the animation spectrum for being aimed more at kids than families with their endless Ice Age sequels. But what puts them above the house the minions built is they try to do something different when left to their own devices, particularly adapting the works of Charles Schultz, William Joyce and even Dr. Seuss. Ferdinand continues that tradition in showing some hope that this small studio can someday compete in the animation big leagues.
John Cena plays the towering bull, Ferdinand, who spends his days as a house pet sniffing flowers. When he sits on a bee at a flower festival he end up bulldozing (no pun intended) the town and is shipped off to his decrepitated calfhood home where the only way out is to gain a fighting match with the matador.
Going into this, I didn’t expect it to be authentic to the setting or plot because of the studio behind it. Yet somehow the first act alone accomplishes the impossible of expanding on a 20 page short with a fitting backstory and sympathetic characters. John Cena feels stunt casted at fist given his young fan base, but gets comfortable in the role with his natural comedic talent. And yes, there’s a bunch of funny sidekicks down the line who vary in tolerance, but they serve a purpose at one point or another which is more than I can say for other comic shoe-ins. I didn’t mind Kate McKinnon’s goat character too much since she’s shown to have gone insane from being a therapist to a bunch of testosterone pumped ingrates. All the other bulls are funny, particularly a genetically altered breed who can conduct electricity like an eel. But behind all the laughs, there are a bunch of dark undertones that don’t shy away from the harsh consequences of Ferdinand’s docile personality so parents might want to think twice before taking their kids to this. It does adds layers on this simple story so that it appeals to both kids and adults much like the book itself. Sometimes the Americanization goes one step too far like a breakdancing competition against some German horses and a car chase that’s become the new standard for a climax.
While everything in an Illumination production plays everything safe, the animation here is spectacular. Sure it doesn’t capture the old timey nature of Madrid, but it’s soft colors and sunset backgrounds go a long way in giving the laid back tone throughout. On the other side is the gorgeous character animation the emphasizes exaggerated animal structures and sharp movements, particularly when Ferdinand has to navigate his large build through a delicate china shop. For all the realism in the computer animation, it tries so hard to keep the storybook feel in backgrounds, character design and movements.
If we’re gonna compare this to the best of the year Coco is the superior feature, but that also means you could do with much worse. Despite the localization with slapstick, modern slang and multiple comic reliefs, Ferdinand is an enjoyable laid back tale that does justice to the book. It’s a shame that it had to come out at the beginning of Star Wars season rather than January when good movies are like an oasis in a desert: a sanctuary in the middle of a heatstroke. Be prepared for some family talk afterwards when the darker moments sink in. If you’re looking for a more faithful adaptation, watch the 1938 Walt Disney short. Otherwise consider this a suitable alternative should The Last Jedi still be sold out.
Pros: Funny cast, beautiful animation, gripping first act, dark under tones, laid back
Cons: Modern dance-off, predictable progression