For a simple children’s story about a pacifist bull in Spain who would rather smell the flowers than charge a matador, Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand generated tremendous controversy, owing to its worldwide popularity and its date of publication, 1936, which found it caught in political crosswinds. It was banned in Franco’s Spain. Hitler ordered it burned as “degenerate democratic propaganda” in Nazi Germany, though it was republished and distributed for free in the same country once the war was over, to teach children a message of peace. Gandhi was a fan. So was H.G. Wells.
Yet sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The Story of Ferdinand could be read as a story of independence and self-actualization, with no interest in advancing the bull as a symbol of nonviolent resistance. This was the message of the Oscar-winning Disney short from 1938, which cast Ferdinand as a silly, whimsical creature who humiliates the matador by licking the flower tattoo on his chest. And that’s the message of Ferdinand, a mediocre new animated feature from Blue Sky productions, which specializes in mediocre features like the Ice Age and Rio franchises. In Blue Sky’s version, the bull isn’t particularly distinguishable from the scores of other anthropomorphic beasts who want to go their own way, but get ostracized for being different. Slap a red nose on him and he’s Rudolph. Put him in the kitchen and he’s Remy from Ratatouille.
Blue Sky does excel at bright, pleasing colors, however, and the animators make the most of the rolling hills and flower-strewn meadows of rural Spain, where young Ferdinand (voiced by bull-framed WWE legend John Cena) resides at Casa del Toros, a training ground for prize bulls. While Ferdinand’s ranch-mates work on their strength and aggression in the hope of fulfilling their destiny in the ring, he nurtures a single flower that’s slipped through a crack in the dirt and tries to stay out of conflict. After learning his dad never made it back from the ring in Madrid, he flees from Casa del Toros and winds up on an idyllic farm where a little girl named Nina (Lily Day) treats him like a pet and allows him to frolic all day on the hillside.
Ferdinand’s time in pacifist-bull paradise adds time — too much, at 107 minutes—and a human element to the film, but once nature finally catches up and turns him into a bulky terror, he can no longer escape his predetermined destiny. His return to Casa del Toros brings some comic relief in the forms of Kate McKinnon as a wound-up “calming goat,” three hedgehogs who go by Uno, Dos, and Cuatro (ask not about Tres), and a few snooty show horses in the adjoining field. There are three or four fart jokes. There’s an elaborate breakout attempt that resembles The Great Escape by way of Chicken Run. Vast chunks of the film seem like a time-wasting measures before Ferdinand can finally square off in the ring against the fearsome, arrogant bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre.)
The lurching rhythms of Ferdinand make a clean story feel ungainly and episodic, though a few of those episodes are good for a laugh, like the bull literally trying to shimmy his way through a china shop or McKinnon’s goat trailing off into neurotic fits of improvisation. But if you didn’t know Ferdinand was based on a children’s classic, it would be impossible to distinguish it from other bright, innocuous, mildly diverting time-passers under the Blue Sky label. That’s less of a problem when running the latest iteration of Ice Age through the mill, but when the premise is about a one-of-a-kind bull who doesn’t run with the stampede, the last thing the film should do is fall in line.