Movie Beat: Despite John Cena, “Ferdinand” surprisingly sweet


by Jenniffer Wardell

Rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements

Screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, and Brad Copeland, screen story by Ron Burch, David Kidd and Don Rhymer, based on the book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson

Directed by Carlos Saldanha

Starring John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Raul Esparza, Lily Day, Jeremy Sisto, Anthony Anderson, David Tennant and more

Grade: Two and a half stars

 

When it comes to animated movies, there are three different levels of quality.

There are the truly great ones, the movies that are destined to be classics in the genre. There are the cheap commercial grabs, the sort of thing that will satisfy five-year-olds but leave parents wanting to gauge out their eyes. The third category is somewhere between the two, with the commercial tie-in clearly in mind but with just enough cleverness and craftsmanship to make the experience genuinely entertaining.

This weekend’s “Ferdinand” is firmly in the last category, nowhere near a classic but sprinkled with enough moments of clever humor, sweetness and restraint to end up surprisingly pleasant. Though it tackles some dark stuff – the original story is about bullfighting, and the movie throws in the shadow of a meatpacking plant – the message of how important it is to just be yourself feels genuine.

The movie starts with Ferdinand as a child, who would rather water flowers than butt heads with the other young bulls. All of the bulls dream of being chosen by the matador, but Ferdinand wants more out of life. A daring escape helps him find it, but years later an unfortunate set of circumstances drag him back into a life he thought he’d left behind for good. Can he figure out a way to save the day and still hold on to what he feels is truly important?

Though the movie offers large doses of slapstick comedy, there are some extremely serious moments. Your children might end up asking some questions during the movie (the death count in bullfighting isn’t something most kids have had to process) nearly all the characters who are proclaimed “dead” during the movie are miraculously alive by the time the credits finish rolling.

The movie’s message is obvious, but it’s not preachy and is actually supported by the story. Not only does Ferdinand hold to his personal belief that it’s important to be true to who you are, but he teaches that belief to some of the other bulls. Hopefully, the kids in the audience are soaking it in as well.

Though some of the movie’s jokes are designed to appeal to small children, those jokes are generally told with a surprising amount of restraint. (The requisite fart noises, for example, comes from a sequence where Ferdinand is wearing kitchen gloves on his hooves as he walks). The jokes aimed at the adults in the audience are both safe to hear and surprisingly clever at times. (My favorite, an insult delivered by the snooty, well-bred horses penned next to the bulls: “I bet his parents weren’t even related.”)

It’s far from a perfect movie. Former wrestler John Cena is hardly the most nuanced voice actor to play Ferdinand, though they’ve thankfully handed former football player Peyton Manning a smaller role. The movie also falls prey to some conventions that come with animated cartoons written by committee, including using Internet memes far past their sell-by date.

Still, “Ferdinand” gets more right than it gets wrong. Which, in the world of animated movies these days, is no bull.

(Photo ©20th Century Fox)

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