Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand was one of my favorites as a kid. I had a book and tape set and would play that thing endlessly, memorizing every line and even teaching myself some contextual Spanish along the way, since side B (and the back half of my edition of the book) were presented in the story’s (if not the book’s) native language. And as I did with most things when I was little, I often imagined a Ferdinand movie in my head while reading and listening.
Blue Sky’s Ferdinand — while nothing like what I’d hoped it might be and in fact diverging significantly from the spare, almost minimalist source material — is, thankfully, among the sweetest and most charming children’s films of the year. But this, as I’ve learned by hearing from many parents over the weekend, is not an opinion that seems to be shared by many actual children. The film takes some (brief) dark turns and introduces some very real stakes for its characters. And what I’m hearing is that some of these inferences and narrative avenues have proven a bit too intense for some audiences probably expecting the goofy romp promised by the trailers.
Now, it is goofy. It’s more over the top and ridiculous in parts than I’d expected, but even the more annoying bits — mostly involving Kate McKinnon’s bizarre schtick as an enthusiastic but not-so-bright goat, which is more or less her normal routine, and which is quickly wearing thin with me — are carried through with some heart and are in keeping with the overall world of the film. This is, after all, the story of a flower-loving, enormous pacifist bull who rejects the notion that he should want to be a fighter. So being true of heart was going to make or break this thing right from the start. But along the way, there are indeed some fairly apocalyptic revelations in store for Ferdinand and his friends.
In introducing the fact that the bulls — Ferdinand among them — are all destined for the slaughterhouse whether they fight or not, the film gives its themes of tradition and determinism-vs.-free will and individualism some extra heft, as the bulls figure out that the world (and worldview) they’ve always known has been a lie and determine that they must now do something to change their own circumstances. It relies on subtly rendered and realistic characters buried beneath the usual kid-friendly shenanigans. Impressive, too, is the way the film constantly reinforces its themes even when taking a timeout for a dance-off between the bulls and a trio of German-accented horses, which I assume is a nod to Leaf’s book and its tumultuous history as a dazzle ship used by fascists during the war to show the supposed weakness of the Allied forces. A lot going on here for a kids movie, to be sure.
The real strength of Ferdinand is that it sticks to its own intention. Even a bull in a china shop likes to stop and smell the flowers.