Ferdinand review: A children’s classic gets the family-film treatment

Carlos Saldanha embellishes ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ with tried-and-tested subplots

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Director: Carlos Saldanha
Cert: G
Genre: Animation
Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, Daveed Diggs, Gina Rodriguez, David Tennant
Running Time: 1 hr 46 mins

Dark clouds have been gathering over Blue Sky Studios, the animation giant behind the Ice Age sequence. Excluding the lovely and ecstatically reviewed Peanuts Movie, the House of Scrat has been on the opposite of a roll. Ice Age: Continental Drift and Rio 2 were mediocre, Epic wasted a voice cast that included Colin Farrell and Beyoncé; Ice Age: Collision Course made one yearn for the second glacial apocalypse.

Ferdinand may lack the all-out charm offensive of the studio's 2015 Snoopy and Charlie Brown vehicle, but it's not too far off in terms of quality and sweetness. It helps that the Blue Sky crew are working from a genuine children's classic.

Munro Leaf's 1936 book The Story of Ferdinand – a cute fable about a bull that would rather sniff flowers than fight matadors – was a big deal in wartime. Released on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, it was banned in Spain until after Franco's death. Hitler, too, demanded that all copies of this "degenerate democratic propaganda" be burned. American psychoanalysts denounced the titular bovine as a latent homosexual.

Conversely, The Story of Ferdinand remained one of the few American children's books available under Stalin. Celebrity fans have included HG Wells, Gandhi and the Roosevelts. Walt Disney adapted Leaf's book into a short animated film, entitled Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938. The character also appeared alongside Maureen O'Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance, from 1940, and with Vin Diesel in the actor's 1997 directorial debut, Strays.


This newest cinematic incarnation embellishes the original picture-book narrative with tried-and-tested family-film subplots, including the little girl he wants to get back home to (Lassie Come Home), the death of a parent (Bambi) and same-species bullies (Dumbo). Happily, even the tormentors slowly warm to John Cena's hugely likable eponymous hero, as Ferdinand and chums (Kate McKinnon's annoying, Doryish goat loudest among them) attempt to escape a life that demands death in the ring or death in the slaughterhouse.

There are some good jokes – “I’ll bet his parents aren’t even related,” one snooty horse scoffs at Ferdinand – and thoughts about animal sentience buried in a family caper that makes great use of Madrid landmarks in the final showdown.

Do have a cow, man.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic