Originally published in 1936, The Story of Ferdinand is still heralded as one of the best pieces of American children’s literature there is. Written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, the story inspired Disney to produce an animated version in 1938, Ferdinand the Bull, which would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. The journey of Leaf’s original story continues as it made its way to theaters Friday as a feature-length, 3D animated film.
Director Carlos Saldanha (Rio) keeps the heart of the story intact, even as the film progresses more and more into “inspired by” territory. The film opens in the Spanish countryside where we meet young Ferdinand, who is not like the other bulls. The other bulls fight to one day be chosen to fight the Matador. Ferdinand, however, is concerned with less violent things, such as the flowers, and the grass, and the cork tree.
Stretching the story to fit a feature-length mold comes with its drawbacks. The comedic moments are expertly placed throughout the film, but the plot is chaotic. To fill the second act, human characters are introduced to create a set of external circumstances that force Ferdinand in one direction or another. This is the main thing that changes the story. Far from Leaf’s original, Saldanha’s Ferdinand is driven by the desire to return rather than the desire to just be. One of the hallmarks of Leaf’s story is that it is open to interpretation. This film seemed to take every interpretation of Leaf’s story and condense these ideas into the script and the plot suffers for it. The stop-and-go momentum of the plot is as straining as sitting through Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.
The saving grace of the second act are the characters who are introduced in it. An ensemble cast fills out the tried and true characters and the new additions to the story. John Cena, who voices Ferdinand, and Kate McKinnon, who voices Lupe, do not disappoint. Though I am surprised the lead characters in Ferdinand were not voiced by Hispanic actors, who filled most of the supporting roles. This also goes for hearing any character actually speak Spanish. For a film set in and around Madrid, one would expect for the language to be front and center, though I did appreciate almost all of the minor characters only speaking Spanish. While some of the new characters are lacking, others such as Paco, voiced by Jerrod Carmichael and the three hedgehogs Una, Dos, and Cuatro, voiced respectively by Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Inglesias, add to Saldanha’s adaptation.
The animation team did an amazing job at bringing Ferdinand to life. The visuals of the film are absolutely stunning. The countryside spaces look vibrant and alive. The iconic sketch of Ferdinand under the cork tree is made to look almost real, as if the audience could reach out and touch it. Every detail, down to the very last flower petal, was attended to. Blue Sky Studios, producers of iconic films such as Rio and the Ice Age series, pulled out all the stops for Ferdinand.
And, as I said, the heart of the original story remains intact, as the film ends with Ferdinand under his tree, smelling the flowers