Truth be told, Fox’s beautifully-animated and whimsical take on the tale of Ferdinand the Bull lost me for a bit. OK, for almost an hour.
The new “Ferdinand” is still based on the classic Munro Leaf book, is still about a Spanish bull who’d rather sit and smell the flowers than fight Matadors, Banderilleros and Picadores. Yeah, he still sits on a bee — which makes him at least appear fierce — just for a moment.
Disney told that story in under eight minutes in a classic cartoon of the 1930s. “Ferdinand” may add a cute little girl who raises him from a calf, adorable hedgehogs, a funny (ish) goat pal, rival bulls and prancing/snarking Lippizaner stallions mit zilly Austrian accents. There’s still a lot of down time and comic dead weight in those middle acts.
But then the extraordinary third act arrives, and the movie finds its heart and its message. And darned if the bulls in this cartoon from the folks who made “Ice Age” don’t do something that a lot of NFL players would recognize.
Raised in the Casa del Toro farm, Ferdinand is taught from birth that he must live to fight.
“That’s what bulls do.”
His peers buy into that unquestioningly. So does his dad (voiced by Jeremy Sisto). It’s Dad’s dream to be brave and tough enough to be chosen by a matador to fight in Madrid. Little Ferdinand has just one question.
“Is it OK if it’s not MY dream?”
Ferdinand loves flowers and the serenity of sitting and sniffing them, which leads to the inevitable bullying by the other calves.
When Dad is “chosen,” events conspire to put Ferdinand to flight. He runs away and into the arms of a little girl (voiced by Lily Day) who raises him to be her best friend. But when he’s grown up, Ferdinand (John Cena) becomes too much to handle, and finds himself right back at Casa del Toro, huge but still “soft.”
“The soft ones always go down,” Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) says, echoing what his tough-guy dad always said. They’ve totally bought into a fate that Ferdinand doesn’t accept.
Kate McKinnon is the wacky “calming goat” sent to stay with Ferdinand to keep him mellow between fights, Gabriel Iglesias is one of the hedgehogs who have the run of the farm and Anthony Anderson, David Tennant (hilariously Scottish) and Peyton Manning voice Ferdinand’s fellow bulls.
The best gag among the supporting players is a trio of “Hans und Franz” impersonating stallions at the farm, mincing, sneering Austrians led by Boris Kodjoe.
“I’ve fallen und I kan’t GIDDY-up!”
And there are other kid-friendly critter hijinx, here and there.
But it’s the film’s “Babe” turn in the third act that makes it watchable, Ferdinand’s grasp that “the game is fixed,” that bulls don’t come back from their triumphant “choice” to go to Madrid raises the stakes and gives the film weight.
And that gives its broader message, one echoed through decades of Pixar pictures and yes, “Ice Age” cartoons, a warmth and timely resonance that lift “Ferdinand” out of its dull middle acts. Whatever it says about the enduring barbarism of bull-fighting, this what “Ferdinand” is really about.
“If we don’t look out for each other, who will?”
MPAA Rating: PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements
Cast: The voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Jeremy Sisto, Peyton Manning, Gabriel Iglesias, David Tennant
Credits:Directed by Carlos Saldanha , script by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland, based on the children’s book by Munro Leaf illustrated by Robert Lawson A Fox/Blue Sky release.
Running time: 1:46