“Ferdinand” is a colorful animated comedy about bullfighting, from the point of view of the bulls. You must see the problem almost immediately: cartoons are for kids, but bullfighting is a cruel, barbaric sport in which animals are tortured and killed for spectators’ amusement. How do you make a fun cartoon about that? You don’t, right? Someone pitches you a children’s cartoon about bullfighting from the bulls’ perspective, and you say, “Uh, no, obviously. Obviously we’re not doing that.”
Not the people at whatever company made “Ferdinand,” though! (It wasn’t Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks, so it doesn’t matter.) These folks took the charming 1936 children’s book (which Disney adapted as a short in 1938) — the entire plot of which is that a peaceful, flower-sniffing bull is put in the arena to fight but shows no interest in doing so, causing the matador to cry, the end — and stretched it into a 100-minute feature requiring contributions by no fewer than six screenwriters (three for the story, three more for the script). When they ran into the difficulty inherent in celebrating a barbaric custom, they worked around it by, uh, not celebrating it. But they don’t really take a stand against it, either.
The result? Blandness, of course. Where a film like “Coco” could appreciate and honor the customs it portrayed and dive respectfully into Mexican culture, “Ferdinand” might as well be set in Omaha. It’s not even clear where it IS set (Spain, not Mexico) until it’s half over. There’s no local flavor. Only the minor characters are voiced by Hispanic actors. You could tell, in “Coco,” that the artists had immersed themselves in the culture they were re-creating. There’s no evidence of that in “Ferdinand.”
In the film, Ferdinand (voice of John Cena) and his fellow bulls are aware that non-fighting bulls are sent to the “chophouse,” never to return, and that being selected for the bullfighting arena is the honor of a lifetime. It has not yet dawned on them that none of THOSE bulls ever return, either. So Ferdinand’s objections don’t stem from cowardice or self-preservation; he just doesn’t like fighting. (But it’s the voice of JOHN CENA, you see! A professional WRESTLER! Ha ha!)
So he escapes from the bull farm and becomes the pet of a girl named Nina (Lily Day), who either somehow figures out that his name is Ferdinand or coincidentally gives him the same name he already had. But he winds up back at the farm anyway, taunted by alpha bulls Guapo (Peyton Manning), Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), Bones (Anthony Anderson), and Angus (David Tennant), and befriended by a “calming goat” named Lupe (Kate McKinnon). When Ferdinand figures out what actually HAPPENS in bullfighting, he and the others try to find a way into peaceful retirement.
Funny things include: Ferdinand in the village plaza gingerly tiptoeing through a china shop, trying not to be the cliché; Kate McKinnon’s loopy Lupe the goat; and a trio of dandy-ish German horses who mock the bulls from across the fence.
The rest isn’t exactly unfunny, just unenthusiastic. There’s no passion in the formulaic script or the animation, vivid though it is, or in Carlos Saldanha’s (“Ice Age,” “Rio”) direction. That’s not surprising, given how noncommittal the movie is about its subject matter. What’s surprising is that they made the movie anyway.
C (1 hr., 46 min.; )