Directed by: Carlos Saldanha. Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland
What makes a film good or not is subjective, that’s no controversial statement. Nonetheless, when writing criticisms, rationally or not, one senses a limit to that logic. I explored this idea in my thoughts on Call Me By Your Name, a film I wasn’t thrilled to watch but nonetheless could tell was a commendable oeuvre. By contrast, while watching Ferdinand, I was wrapped in cognitive dissonance. I liked what I saw, but I had a sense I wasn’t supposed to. Indeed, an after-the-film web search showed me that that Ferdinand is widely seen as a run-of-the-mill mediocre children’s film.
Ferdinand is based on a 1937 children’s book of the same name by Munro Leaf. Leaf’s book is the story of a gentle, flower-loving bull who is mistakenly viewed as having fighting potential when he is seen jumping around in pain from a bee sting. The film does not deviate from the book per se, as it is simply a much longer, more detailed imagining of the original premise. According to Tim Brayton of Alternative Endings, there in lies the problem. The original text of Ferdinand was a classic, he says, but a “demented goat,” “a meat-processing facility that has the internal logic of a 1950s Warner cartoon,” and “three hedgehogs whose primary contribution to the plot is musical numbers” are the epitome of mediocre filler.
Aside from his failure to recognize the moderate cleverness of including a calming goat as a sidekick, I don’t disagree with Brayton. For its humor Ferdinand relied on meh-slapstick scenes, German and Scottish accents, the arbitrarily blue and purple hedgehogs, and the antics of Lupe the goat who is essentially a poor-man’s Dory. What I believe Brayton, and Vikram Murthi miss, however, is that the appeal of Ferdinand lies not in its humor, but in its plot. Both critics describe the heart of the film as its clichéd, be-yourself message. This generalization misses the obvious, that Ferdinand is a story about a bull.
Despite its cute aesthetic, Ferdinand’s opening is thoroughly morbid. The film begins in the Spanish countryside at Casa del Toro, where young bulls butt heads, not ignorant to, but certainly naïve about the horrible end they are training for (the bull fight). These morbid stakes are raised further when we discover that these young bulls live at the same venue as their fathers. The calves, particularly Ferdinand’s bully Valiente (Jack Gore, Bobby Canavale as an adult), eagerly cheer on their father’s attempts to make the bullfights, Ferdinand (Colin H. Murphy, John Cena as an adult), being the exception to this rule. In his brief appearance, Ferdinand’s father (Jeremy Sisto) makes for one the of the film’s more nuanced characters. In gently explaining to his son that bulls are destined to fight, he illustrates how the film’s bulls are overwhelmingly trapped in a toxic-masculine, or at very least fatalist, culture without embodying any of said culture’s brutish coldness.
That the bulls live with their fathers and not mothers is another interesting choice on the film’s part (in the book Ferdinand is raised by his mother). Ferdinand has always been perceived as a story that challenges traditional gender roles, since it stars a flower loving, pacifistic alpha-male. While Ferdinand the film includes somewhat prominent female characters (Lupe (Kate McKinnon), Una the hedgehog (Gina Rodriguez) and Nina, his adoptive owner (Julia Saldanha, later Lilly Day), its male-centric set-up is actually what makes its anti-patriarchal politics so effective . Rather than tempering their machismo with guidance from more level-headed and morally authoritative female characters, the bulls of Ferdinand must escape from the prison of their toxic masculinity themselves.
But, let’s go back to the importance of Ferdinand being about bulls. We have acknowledged that the film opens morbidly to a scene of bulls being raised for a bloody-sport and being brainwashed into being excited about this. We then get to know Ferdinand who realizes fighting is not for him, yet after an incident with a bee is forced back into the fighting world, despite his knowledge of the dangers that lie with it. The plots gets even darker as slaughter-houses are made part of the equation. The film’s approach to the slaughter house is not uninteresting. When one prominent character is sent away to be butchered, the other characters do nothing. While parents should rest assured that Ferdinand ultimately ends as a play-it-safe, feel-good kid’s film, it does truly force its viewers to accept the gnawing reality of the abattoir. The inside of slaughter-house, meanwhile, is presented as dark, empty, and functioning without the presence of humans. This is because part of Ferdinand’s darkness, with the partial exception of a matador, lies in its carefullness not to present humans as bad guys: the humans are simply following the rules of their society. There is unquestionably something sinister about the fact that Ferdinand and his fellow bulls are brought face to face with death, by the mundane, softspoken owner of Casa del Toro. It should also be noted that the imagery of the empty slaughter-house further enforces the film’s theme of self-imprisonment.
Ferdinand’s story may be simple, but it is one that flows naturally and compellingly. In that regard it’s worth comparing to Coco (which gets a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Ferdinand’s 71%). While Coco’s premise and aesthetic may be more inventive than Ferdinand’s, parts of its story seems forced: namely the absoluteness of Miguel’s family’s opposition to music and the sudden-emergence-of and over-the-top-explanation-for Hector’s death. Is it fair that Ferdinand is seen as mediocre because of its second-rate comedy writing, while Coco is given a pass on its rushed-plot development? Or is this perhaps an example of how our pre-conceived biases (Pixar=good, Blue Sky=mediocre) shape our viewing experiences?
This is not to say I do not have problems with how Ferdinand was written. While it surprises me that Ferdinand’s dual terrors of human disregard for animal life, and the self-imposed prison of toxic masculinity was not more universally compelling, the writing of Ferdinand’s adult character undoubtedly watered down the effectiveness of the film’s plot. Ferdinand’s one flaw is not being aware of his own size (he essentially sees himself as a puppy). Aside from that, he is kind, courageous, and most importantly very aware of the futility of bull fighting. Unlike the less anthropomorphic version of Ferdinand in Leaf’s book, the film character is not a naïve, gentle-giant, but a model citizen who teaches the other bulls to stop being self-destructively competitive and to find self-actualization outside of the bullring. Were Ferdinand less self-aware, and thus less capable of engineering an escape plan, perhaps his plights would have seemed more overwhelming and thus more striking to critics. Even this criticism, however, I must bracket with nuance. The trope of the naïve-gentle-giant is not always a bad one, but the world needs to look beyond it. Do we want to live in a world where we assume giants are only gentle because they are simple-minded (in fairness to the original Ferdinand, it’s not so much that he’s simple minded, but that’s he’s a quasi-realistic bull who’s thoughts are thus inaccessible to us)?
In short, Ferdinand is not the most inventive piece when it comes to comedy or allegory. That said, if you can bring yourself to take it literally, not as a kids comedy for humans, but a potentially-tragic epic about bulls, you might find it more affective than some of its less forgiving reviewers. Regardless of what you think of the film, you should at very least check out the book and its fascinating history.