The Bock’s Office: ‘Ferdinand’ has weak presentation but a mighty message
In another life, the hero of “Ferdinand” could have a bright future as a floral arranger and flamenco dancer. Maybe most folks wouldn’t want to admit it, but the fact that he weighs 2,000 pounds only makes those talents more impressive.
A bull named Ferdinand (voice of John Cena) may look like a hulking brute, but his massive size belies his nature as a true softie.
With a fondness for flowers and virtually no sense of aggression, he has made a happy life for himself on a farm in the Spanish countryside. That all changes when he accidentally causes a ruckus in the nearby village, prompting the police to ship him off to Casa del Toro, a breeding ranch.
There he stands out as the biggest of the bunch of bulls, all of whom are looking to make a name for themselves in the bullfighting arena against the nation’s most renowned matador.
Ferdinand’s resistance to this environment is one he’s not willing to drop despite being branded a coward by everyone around him, yet he might not have much choice when the only alternative is an appointment at the slaughterhouse.
As someone who’s put on more than his share of testosterone-driven displays of machismo, wrestler and action hero Cena goes against type as a character whose kind heart and goofy personality leave no room for fighting. After all, who better to voice a literal side of beef than someone so renowned for his biceps?
If Burgess Meredith had a grotesque underbite, bug eyes and a compulsion to eat garbage — oh, and was female — Rocky’s mentor might look something like Lupe, a calming goat paired with Ferdinand as he transitions into ranch life. Well voiced by Kate McKinnon, she sees plenty of potential in the newest recruit, but her hopes of gaining a little respect are quickly dashed when she finds out Ferd has no intention of butting heads.
Though they may not have his size, the toros of Casa del Toro do all they can to outshine their non-competitive competition from scrawny Bones (Anthony Anderson) to easily intimidated Guapo (Peyton Manning) to shaggy Highlander Angus (David Tennant). None of them are so relentlessly focused on the prospect of glory than lean, mean fighting machine Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), who sees no other reason for living beyond mixing it up with a matador and walking out a winner.
Clearly none of these bovines have actually watched a bullfight…
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a cartoon without some tiny supporting animals for comic relief, in this case a trio of sticky-fingered hedgehogs — Una, Dos and Cuatro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, Gabriel Iglesias).
Don’t even ask about Tres.
A long list of throwaway gags are to be expected by now from Blue Sky Studios, an establishment that doesn’t hesitate to stretch out a good thing, at least if the last three “Ice Age” movies are any indication.
Admittedly, you’ve just got to have a scene that proves the old adage about a bull in a china shop, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be that long.
Blue Sky’s strength has never been in design nor storytelling, but when they have the right source material, they can make it work, here tackling one of the great children’s books of the 20th century. Munro Leaf’s simple tale of defying society — a favorite text for burning by Nazi Germany back in the 1930s due to its pacifist subtext — is one that rings true no less today.
Besides the theater of toxicity on display at Casa del Toro among animals trained to understand only anger and to stomp out compassion, it’s always telling when an outsider asks why this system is the way it is and gets that classic response — because.
“Ferdinand” doesn’t stand out too much from the ever-growing crowd of cartoons that boil down to the moral “to thine own self be true,” but at its best moments, Blue Sky gets it right in showing that the greatest display of strength can be to not use it for the wrong reason.
Unless a bee catches you on the butt. Then, all bets are off.