Munro Leaf’s children’s book The Story of Ferdinand is a bona fide classic. With its charming drawings and kid-friendly prose, Ferdinand was an instant hit upon publication in 1936. (It also became politically controversial during the Spanish Civil War and World War II, thanks to its pacifist message, and Hitler famously banned it.) The story is simple: Ferdinand is a strong but peaceful bull who has no interest in bullfighting and would rather spend his days sitting under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers. Because of his seemingly fierce appearance, Ferdinand is taken to Madrid and put in the ring to face a matador — only he refuses to fight.
Walt Disney released a short, animated adaptation in 1938, but Ferdinand is making his true big-screen debut now, with John Cena voicing the titular bull in an animated adaptation. Leaf’s book is less than 800 words long, so understandably, director Carlos Saldanha had to add some padding to create a full-length feature. Unfortunately, Ferdinand buries the original story’s message under frenetic action scenes and grating sidekicks, turning a classic tale into just another flat animated comedy.
We first meet our bovine hero as a young calf, where, even then, he’d rather sit and smell the flowers than roughhouse with the other bulls. He and his cohorts have been raised for one purpose only — to fight the country’s greatest matadors and achieve glory in the ring — and for the other bulls, this is the pinnacle of their ambition. Ferdinand eventually escapes and finds happiness living on a flower farm with a young girl named Nina, but he soon grows into a literal gentle giant. After the local village brands him as a fierce monster, he’s send back to his birthplace to await his eventual showdown with the matador.
But that’s a long way away. In the meantime, Ferdinand has to meet a motley crew of annoying side characters, including a goat (Kate McKinnon) who deems herself Ferdinand’s personal trainer and a trio of pastel hedgehogs named Una, Dos, and Cuatro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, and Gabriel Iglesias). There’s a sequence where Ferdinand has to break into a slaughterhouse to save his fellow bulls (voiced by Peyton Manning and Bobby Cannavale). There’s a frenetic car chase where Ferdinand and his friends steal a truck and escape by driving down the highway. There’s also a dance-off with a trio of snooty German horses. (Is it legal to make an animated movie in 2017 without a dance-off?) Some of the jokes land easier than others, and the film’s bolstered by charming voice performances from Cena and McKinnon. Other than that, Ferdinand is just another forgettable family flick. C+