Turning a classic children's book into a movie isn't always an easy task (see: every scene-chewing actor to ever take on a live-action Dr. Seuss role). But the six (yes, six) writers of Ferdinand have done an able job of translating the 1936 book to the screen for the second time (Disney released an Oscar-winning animated short called Ferdinand the Bull back in 1938).
Directed by Carlos Saldanha, the film follows a similar theme to his other movies for 20th Century Fox: the first three Ice Age films (they're up to five now) and both Rio and Rio 2 – a loner animal needs to wrangle a ragtag group of other animals to save the day. Will they succeed? Only with a touch of mettle, a dash of tenacity and a heaping dose of friendship, of course.
Here, Ferdinand is the runt of the bull litter, who would rather sniff flowers than fight resident tough guy Valiente. He manages to escape Casa del Toro, the farm he grows up on, to be discovered by young animal lover Nina. He lives on her father's flower farm, munching on carrots and having high jinks until he grows up to be an adult bull voiced by John Cena. When the family head to the town's flower festival without Ferdinand (he's getting too big to be around the townsfolk), he sneaks off the farm, gets captured, and is sent back to seemingly the only bull farm in all of Spain, Casa del Toro.
There, he meets Lupe the comfort goat (Kate McKinnon) and reunites with his former bull mates, including tormentor Valiente (Bobby Cannavale). Valiente's view, shared by the other bulls, is, "You're either a fighter or you're meat." While Ferdinand still refuses to fight, the bulls are judged by toreador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) and farm owner Moreno (Raul Esparza, who Law and Order: SVU fans will recognize as Rafael Barba).
Some predictably wacky stuff ensues, including the introduction of adorable hedgehogs Una, Dos and Cuatro ("We don't speak of Tres!") and snooty German horses Hans, Klaus and Greta, before a madcap adventure through Spain (set to a Pitbull song, for some reason) and an unsurprising conclusion.
The story is fine enough for the younger set, but a few quibbles remain: For a film set in Spain, few people in this universe speak Spanish, save for the most basic words, and those who speak English have particularly American accents. And what a coincidence, when these aren't Dr. Doolittle-style talking animals (humans around them don't understand them), that Nina would opt to name her bull his actual name!
Also, for a bull-themed movie, there was a dearth of bull puns, save for a particularly slapsticky scene in which Ferdinand finds himself literally a bull in a china shop. Not even one "bull spit!" or anything. Come on, six credited writers, give us something.
Ferdinand is not going to be the next Frozen or Lion King or even the fourth or fifth Ice Age movie, but there's a reason the story is still being told some 81 years after it was first published. Its lessons – be true to yourself, go your own way, and don't let society tell you what you should or shouldn't be – are just as applicable today as they were then. And that's no pile of bull.
Ferdinand opens Dec. 15.