By: Nikolai Robinson
John Cena is a Spanish bull that loves flowers instead of fighting. Albeit a chuckle-inducing sentence, the new children’s film ‘Ferdinand’ offers more than just a punchline premise. Based on the classic children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ by Munro Leaf, this kiddie flick rises above its flaws to present an important and relevant message to kids and adults alike about…masculinity?
Yes, I said masculinity. Controversial topic nowadays, right? The Hollywood film industry, the government, and many other spheres of everyday life are being exposed as institutions in which toxic masculinity is rampant, and can escalate to physical aggression and sexual harassment. I know this is a kids’ film, and it may seem like I’m exaggerating the link between Ferdinand’s core message and real-life issues, but an informed and concerned adult can’t help but notice the thematic connection.
Let me provide a brief synopsis for context: Ferdinand (wrestler-turned-actor John Cena) lives at a farm where bulls are raised for fighting. All the other baby bulls hope to one day fight against a matador in the bullfighting ring like their fathers, but Ferdinand, a sweet kid, loves smelling flowers. When tragedy strikes, Ferdinand escapes the farm to be taken up by Juan (famous Colombian musician Juanes) and his daughter, Nina, whom he befriends and grows up with. Now an enormous adult bull, a public misunderstanding forces Ferdinand back to the fighting farm, where he must compete with the other bulls (Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, and David Tennant) to either fight the ultimate matador (Miguel Angel Silvestre) or end up as someone’s steak dinner. With the help of an unusual but lovable goat (Kate McKinnon), Ferdinand must decide how to save himself without having to go through violent means to get back to Nina and his idyllic life.
As far as the story goes, it’s nothing new- pacifist protagonist, the wacky female sidekick, and the small child/big animal bond that drives the narrative are all clichés we’ve seen before, especially in films concerning anthropomorphic animals. And for adults, it’s almost tedious at times. I can’t speak for the children in the audience, but certain scenes were unnecessary filler (e.g. a lengthy, out-of-place dance scene between bulls and horses), which really bring the pace down. Like many family films, some of the jokes work, and some fall extremely flat, even with the kids (e.g. a horse saying the following- “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t giddy-up”).
But what really stuck out for me, and what possibly redeemed all of these flaws, was the core message- what you’re born as does not define who you are. Bulls don’t all have to be tough, aggressive, and violent, and can be friendly, compassionate, and even cry in front of each other. This is why I’m convinced it’s a parallel of the modern national debate on masculinity- the young bulls make fun of Ferdinand for liking things that aren’t masculine (or bull-like), in fact he’s mocked throughout the film for not acting as he’s expected to, but ultimately his gentleness is what saves his life in a beautifully poignant climax. It’s a film that advocates for complete pacifism and the rejection of predetermined roles, and it’s needed today. Casting Cena as the lead may be ironic since it’s about a big guy not wanting to fight, but it truly helps legitimize the message.
Ultimately, I think it’s a win for Blue Sky Studios, an animation underdog which has a pretty solid track record, despite the endless string of Ice Age sequels. (Their other hits include Robots, the Rio movies, Horton Hears a Who!, Epic, and the latest Peanuts movie.) Although Ferdinand doesn’t exactly reach the technical and narrative heights of, let’s say, a Pixar film, it still proves itself worthy of our attention.
I give it a 3/5!