What do you get when you cross The Fox and the Hound with Hercules and Home on the Range? Bully Elliot – aka: the sweet and funny, if unremarkable, Ferdinand.
Based on Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s once-controversial 1930s children’s book, The Story of Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha’s film marks the second appearance of the titular lover-not-a-fighter hero on cinema screens, after Disney’s Oscar-winning 1938 short. Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy) is a Spanish fighting bull, raised for a career before the Matador’s cape by his father Raf (Jeremy Sistero), but dreaming of a non-confrontational life. When his father fails to return from the ring, Ferdinand flees the training farm and winds up being adopted by a florist.
From the studio behind the Ice Age and Rio films, Ferdinand is cast in the buoyantly colourful animated fashion you’d expect. It’s a lightweight affair, pleasing to the eye and rib-tickling to the funny bone. When a grown up Ferdinand (John Cena) winds up at the annual flower festival in Ronda, a bee sting on the behind propels him through a delightfully destructive slapstick set-piece, of course, concluding within a china shop. No, it’s not an innovative gag but it’s hard to deny that a certain spot is hit.
Mistaken for a viscous fighter, Ferdinand is recaptured by his former trainer and dumped with a calming goat (Kate McKinnon), determined to coach him to greatness. Casting WWE professional wrestler Cena as its protagonist is something of a stroke of genius in its external context, revealing a pointed astuteness on the behalf of Saldanha and team to the modern world. Through it’s playful, simplistic charms are jabs at conventional masculinity and animal cruelty, alongside a genuine sense of heart-warming morality.
Likewise, intentional or not, Ferdinand is a pleasingly geometrical film, ideal for younger viewers. 3:1 ratios are consistently deployed, in such a way as to instil the whole with both visual and thematic harmony. A trio of scampish Hedgehogs (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias) are good fun, as are the three – highly stereotypical – German horses (Flula Borg, Boris Kodjoe and Sally Philips), with both bringing the isolation of Ferdinand in to contrast.
Ferdinand is, then, one more film in the animation canon to celebrate difference. It is as far from striking as it is from original but has that Saturday afternoon quality, from which parents with tots should emerge smiling.