“FERDINAND” — 2½ stars — Voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Gabriel Iglesias, David Tennant; PG (rude humor, action and some thematic elements); in general release
As a family-friendly animated feature, “Ferdinand” falls somewhere on the second tier, below must sees such as Pixar’s “Coco” but ahead of 2017’s more forgettable animated fare, such as Pixar’s “Cars 3.” (Pixar has had an up-and-down year.) Carlos Saldanha’s film benefits from some energetic animation and sends a kind message about finding positive ways to deal with confrontation.
Based on the book written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, “Ferdinand” is the charming story of a bull who doesn’t want to fight. We meet Ferdinand (voiced as a child by Colin H. Murphy) as a skinny youngster, living with his father and their peers in Casa del Toro, a training ground for champion bulls. While the other young bulls aspire to grow up and fight local matadors, Ferdinand seems more interested in tending to the plants growing in the yard.
When his father (Jeremy Sisto) is called up to fight a matador and then never returns, Ferdinand manages to escape Casa del Toro. He’s taken in on a nearby farm, where he grows into adulthood under the compassionate care of a girl named Nina (Lily Day), her father Juan (Juanes) and their dog Paco (Jerrod Carmichael).
As Ferdinand grows larger and larger — and then even larger — his domesticated life becomes problematic as people start to fear him on sight. After an incident at the local flower festival (which features the obligatory “bull in a china shop” gag sequence), Ferdinand (voiced as an adult by John Cena) is returned to Casa del Toro and put back on track to fight the matadors.
There he finds some familiar faces, such as his old friends Guapo (Peyton Manning — yes, that Peyton Manning) and Bones (Anthony Anderson), as well as the local bully Valiente (Bobby Cannavale). He also meets a Scottish bull named Angus (David Tennant), a group of dancing hedgehogs, some German show horses and a “calming goat” named Lupe (Kate McKinnon), who volunteers to train him. But Ferdinand still doesn’t want to fight and begins to suspect that the bulls’ path to glory against the matadors hides a dark secret.
So the story settles into the question of whether Ferdinand will lead his fellow animals to freedom or be pushed into public (and likely fatal) battle against El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), the current star of the matador circuit.
Even though the side characters provide some color, the cast feels a little too expansive to keep track of everyone. Some sequences — such as a musical dance-off with the horses — get laughs but feel like unnecessary padding to the film’s 106-minute running time.
“Ferdinand” is a perfectly reasonable option for the holiday season, but it probably shouldn’t be at the top of parents’ priority lists if they’re only taking the kids out to a couple of movies during the year. It should be fun for fans of the book to see their favorite characters on screen, but Saldanha’s effort may struggle to get attention this weekend when so many kids’ minds are on a galaxy far, far away.
“Ferdinand” is rated PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements; running time: 106 minutes.