I don’t think Ferdinand is really something we read in the UK. Or at least, nobody I’ve talked to about the film has been familiar with the source material. I’ve had a surprising number of conversations about it actually, mostly starting from the point of ‘What the fuck is Ferdinand?’ Like, this super generic lookin’ animated film has been getting consistent trailer playtime for the past six months.
And why does it feature John Cena, whose last vocal performance was in Surf’s Up 2: Wavemania? I get that we’re all eager to make Cena a thing. Let’s be fair, it took Dwayne Johnson a good five years before he started to make sense as an actor, we gotta give him time. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, the man’s not got the skills to be a voice actor yet. You can hear it in his performance, his delivery is way too often ill disciplined. He relaxes into this downplayed naturalism that ain’t sufficiently expressive. Constantly fighting his range, struggling to hit the highs.
Given that the original storybook contained about enough material to pack out a seven minute 1930s Disney short the filmmakers have elaborated somewhat here. Ferdinand is a sensitive calf in a facility dedicated to raising fighting bulls. When his father is selected to go to Madrid to take on the matador and don’t return, the kid breaks outta there. He eventually is taken in by a kindly florist’s daughter who raises him into a huge, imposing adult. Course, the general public don’t understand his gentle spirit and, after an accidental ruckus at a public celebration, he’s carted back to the facility where he spent his young years.
There he gotta reconcile with his childhood friends and enemies, avoid the doors of the slaughterhouse that the insufficiently vicious bulls are sent to, and figure a new way to escape back to his loving family. He’s in assisted his mission by three streetwise hedgehogs and an overly-assertive goat, played by Kate McKinnon.
McKinnon proves to be an able voice-performer, I guess doing SNL sketch work provides a decent foundation to work on. She never manages to disappear into the character, and the loss of her physicality is keenly felt. It happens a lot actually here, this massive disconnect between the actor’s voice work and the bodies they inhabit. There’s a human character who shows up for one scene, and I would swear that her arms never stop moving for a single frame. She’s also the most midlands sounding Spaniard that ever existed.
The whole film has an incredibly shaky relationship to its Spanish setting, maybe I’m just feeling it because we got the Coco trailer right before. Also possibly because I have actually been to Rondo, the mountain town where Ferdinand grows up. Film just didn’t have a solid sense of place to it, and John Powell’s faux folksy guitar lead soundtrack layer on the inauthenticity. Possibly deserved, the source material is an entirely American creation after all, but there’s more beauty and detail to Spain than we get here.
Perhaps we could have dedicated more time to the people of the country, who are blessed with switching between speaking English and Spanish seemingly at random, if we cut the godawful five minute dance scene. Like, it’s outrageous, every time you think it’s done a new song will start and it just keeps going. I ain’t sure there’s a single physical gag that worked this entire movie. I didn’t hear any laughs in my theatre.
What’s the point in adapting a beloved classic if you’re just gonna turn it into something derivative? We’ve seen this sorta fish outta water, just gotta be yourself story a million times already. The Ferdinand book was apparently considered controversial at the time of publication, a critique of the Spanish fascists maybe, why couldn’t we have that film?
Instead we get the same as any other, a kids’ story that runs on the language of oppression to ultimately remind us that the biggest bull in the ring can be free to be himself. These stories are such crocks of shit nowadays. We’re far enough into the age of Silicon Valley to understand that the adult triumph of the outcast child might not be an entirely uncomplicated situation. All these narratives that for their sunshine morals are rooted in the morality of revenge.
Ferdinand does not emerge victorious at the end of the film because of his kindness, or his morals. He wins because he is able to use his stature to dominate those around him. He does not instigate co-operative societal change, he is just able to force himself onto those surrounding him. We do not judge his methods, because he’s good I guess.
But what if Ferdinand weren’t able-bodied, or neurotypical, or cishet, or a man? Y’know. Children need to know that they can be themselves, but I think that feeding them these same stories. Stories that don’t interrogate the role of power or privilege in the construction of societal morality, we’re just gonna end up with another generation as fucked as our own. That’s the problem with Ferdinand.
Ferdinand is currently screening in UK cinemas.