Ferdinand: a warm homage to a great bull

Rating: ***

Voiced: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant

In retrospect, when we look at the initial response to Ferdinand the bull in 1936, we see it was clearly an overreaction. It had been banned in many countries that practically viewed it as a political tract.

Munro Leaf had simply written a story about a bull that would much rather smell flowers than fight matadors.

Then again, look at how the story ended. When Ferdinand is finally forced to confront the matador, he does not fight, rather chooses to enjoy the flowers that he sees there. The matador breaks down crying — the stupid bull had not even let him take out his sabre.

Perhaps there was something to why the leaders of the time were irked. War wasn't war for everyone. For many men, especially at the top, it was way to show the ladies their sabres.

Walt Disney's 1938 adaption, directed by Dick Rickard, stayed true to the very serious theme of the (children's!) story. It added a Disney-esque feel, threw in a good measure of cartoon humour, with a meta-narrative touch, and if anything, made it better.

The penultimate scene of the film, where you see a poster on a wall that reads 'EL TORO FEROCIOUS: FERDINANDO', on which falls the shadow of Ferdinand travelling back to his village, was nothing short of great cinema.

Carlos Saldanha's 2017 revisit the story is heart-warming and immensely entertaining, but completely throws out Leaf's political allegory and Rickard's subtlety.

Yet, for those of us who are sick of Hollywood churning out singing-competition (Pitch Perfect series) and dance competition films (Step Up series), it is refreshing to see a young calf ask his father, "Can I be the champ by not fighting?"

While the original story simply told of Ferdinand's refusal to fight, the new version introduces an array of other characters. Among these are the always-refreshing Kate McKinnon's "calming goat", a Scottish bull with a ridiculously thick Scottish accent voiced by the inimitable David Tennant and flamboyant, uptight horses with German accents.

There is not a dull moment in the film, the humour is never out of pitch, and the casting is excellent, especially that of John Cena as Ferdinand.

Casting a big, burly wrestler, a symbol of gruesome masculinity, is precisely what was needed to bring out the irony in the character of the all-too-soft Ferdinand.

Unfortunately, the film strays little from stock Hollywood. At a time when films like Paddington, Fantastic Mr Fox and Coco are stretching the possibilities of children's films, both in technique and theme, Ferdinand does not stand apart from the larger crowd.

It is your run-of-the-mill good film and not the out-of-the-box good film.

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