Ferdinand is a bull. A big bull. A big strong muscular bull that would be perfect in the bullfighting ring, if only he actually wanted to fight. He’d actually much rather sniff flowers and play with his owner and best friend, Nina. This big strong gentle pacifist is voiced by big strong wrestler John Cena, who in real life seems as happy looking after sick kids while volunteering for the Make-a-Wish foundation, for which he has granted over five hundred wishes, as he does in the ring. Despite most of Cena’s acting roles so far taking advantage of his size in live-action roles he’s pretty perfectly cast here, delivering a vocal performance that’s filled with a childlike enthusiasm and heartfelt earnestness. Ferdinand has an important message to share with its young audience, particularly the boys, that bravery isn’t always displayed through fighting and it’s okay to find your own interests. It’s a message that’s simply told by director Carlos Saldanha, but told well – when rival bull Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) asks Ferdinand whether he should just go off and sniff flowers rather than fighting, Ferdinand responds “No, that’s my thing. You’ll find your own.”
While the kids seeing Ferdinand will hopefully respond to and learn from its moral of sensitivity, older audiences will find less about the film that they haven’t seen before. The overarching plot of Ferdinand being separated from his owner and struggling to get back home has been done in countless prior animated films, most notably the Toy Story series, and many of the colourful cartoon characters Ferdinand encounters along his journey feel like the usual band of characters required by a summer holidays kid’s film. The only real notable one is the eccentric and somewhat delusional goat, Lupa, who instantly decides Ferdinand is her new best friend and declares herself his coach. As the voice of Lupa Kate McKinnon proves the manic energy she often brings to her characters on Saturday Night Live works just as well in animation as she manipulates nearly every line she has for the maximum comedic potential – aided by an endearingly off-putting character design and some delightful sight gags.
Blue Sky Studios utilise the Spanish setting of Ferdinand to create a bright and colourful visual palette, particularly when Ferdinand explores a town’s annual flower festival, and John Powell’s soundtrack plays with this Spanish influence, but I found myself distracted by the bizarre mix of accents on display from the vocal cast. While the human characters are all Spanish the bulls speak with American accents, excepting David Tennant as a Scottish Highland bull, and they’re regularly taunted by three horses in the adjourning field that act like German stereotypes for some inexplicable reason. It feels like the studio wanted to fill Ferdinand with as many wacky characters and voices as possible without much of a real narrative reason to do so, and indeed two of the most entertaining scenes – Ferdinand as a literal bull in a china shop and a lengthy dance sequence between the bulls and the horses – seem to exist purely to drag the plot of Munro Leaf’s original children’s book out to a feature length runtime.
That’s not to say Ferdinand ever feels like a waste of time – it’s a fun enough cartoon with a valid message to tell and appealing visuals, but while animation continues to evolve as a meaningful art form capable of telling rich stories with distinctive characters, this one still feels like it’s just for the kids.