“Ferdinand” tells the story of the titular bull: a pacifist who is forced into a world where he is pressured at every turn to give in to the violence around him. It is only through constant perseverance, bravery and faithfulness to his moral code that he eventually gets his chance at a return to a peaceful life.
In other words, “Ferdinand” is pretty much “Hacksaw Ridge” with adorable animated bulls. And it’s actually quite good.
If you’re a cynic like me, the quality of Blue Sky Studios’s newest outing may come as a shock, as the marketing made it appear as nothing more or less than a cash-in on a beloved children’s tale. It would check all the lowest common denominator kid’s flick boxes: There would be at least one scene with all the main characters dancing and at least two montages backed by pop music — one upbeat song and one slow song — that will be dated by the time the Blu Ray hits shelves. There would also be a plethora of pointless animal sidekicks who don’t add anything to the plot but do sell Happy Meals, plenty of poop and fart jokes to keep the kids giggling and a talented enough voice cast to trick parents into thinking there might be something under the surface.
And yes, there is plenty of all that, montages and all. More importantly, however, there actually is something more going on. There are plenty of poop jokes, but there’s also smart physical comedy. There are not one, but two trios of pointless sidekicks — one of horses, one of hedgehogs — but there are also genuinely funny characters with distinct personalities, including a lab-created “Franken-bull” who “says nothing and feels nothing, including pain.” There are dance sequences that come out of nowhere and end just as pointlessly as they began, but there’s also a heart to “Ferdinand” that it unabashedly wears on its sleeve.
The first two acts of “Ferdinand” are defined by the struggle between these two parts of itself: the genuinely good animated film it wants to be and the shameless cash grab that it’s expected to be. The resultant tone is uneven as it flails wildly from poignant to groan-inducing on an almost scene-by-scene basis. A fantastic conversation between two characters discussing their insecurities is followed shortly by the aforementioned dance-off. A hedgehog-centric caper gives way to a maturely delivered revelation with a serious impact on Ferdinand (John Cena, “The Wall”). A fun chase scene ends only for another nearly identical chase to immediately begin — this one set to a wildly out of place Pitbull cover of The Rolling Stones’s “I’m Free.”
However, that second chase, boring as it is, gives way to the third act and climax, which is not only hands-down the best sequence of the movie, but one of the best scenes of any animated movie this year. It’s laudably thoughtful and restrained, with even the rapid fire dialogue of Kate McKinnon’s (“Ghostbusters”) incorrigible “therapy goat,” Lupe, falling silent. In fact, there’s little dialogue at all, as director Carlos Saldanha (“Rio”) chose to do most of the storytelling through visuals alone. Like all the best children’s movies, “Ferdinand” doesn’t talk down to its intended audience and instead allows the kids in the theater to consider everything that’s happened and everything that’s at stake. Of all the things I was expecting from “Ferdinand,” a climax that gave me goosebumps wasn’t one of them.
That’s what I got though, and that scene and the movie it came packaged in was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. To be clear, “Ferdinand” isn’t perfect. It gives into the lesser impulses that have previously led Blue Sky to make films like last year’s “Ice Age: Collision Course” too often for it to be truly great. But the heart on display, and the way it is usually communicated through terrific voice acting and a willingness to get real with kids about the realities of bullfighting, makes it worthwhile; a worthy adaptation of Munro Leaf’s classic book.