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edge staff writer


Stop and smell the flowers with ‘Ferdinand’

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Retelling of children’s classic offers sweet family fun

Blue Sky Studios hasn’t necessarily achieved the same high profile as major animation players like Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, but there’s no denying that the 20th Century Fox subsidiary has had its share of success.

The latest offering from the company best known for the “Ice Age” franchise is “Ferdinand,” a sweet and straightforward family film adapted from 1936’s “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson. This tale of a gentle bull who prefers flowers to fighting is a beloved children’s tale – one brought to delightful life by Blue Sky directorial workhorse Carlos Saldanha.

A Spanish bullfight training area named Casa del Toro is home to a number of young bulls, all being raised with the idea that there is nothing more important than doing battle with matadors and finding glory in the arena. But one calf – a youngster named Ferdinand – is more interested in stopping and smelling the flowers than becoming a great fighter. He is teased mercilessly by his peers, but he is who he is.

When Ferdinand’s father fails to return from his bullfight, Ferdinand runs away, getting lost in the Spanish countryside and ultimately getting adopted by a – wait for it – flower farmer.

Grown-up Ferdinand (John Cena, “Daddy’s Home 2”) is allowed to indulge his inner aesthete. Farmer Juan (singer Juanes in his feature debut) and Juan’s daughter Nina (Lily Day in her debut) have raised Ferdinand with love and affection, allowing him to become a big-hearted goofball who chases butterflies and annoys farm dog Paco (Jerrod Carmichael, TV’s “The Carmichael Show”) and generally embraces life.

But when circumstances brand him as dangerous, Ferdinand finds himself shipped back to Casa del Toro. There, he’s left to deal with now-grown tormentors like the undersized chatterbox Bones (Anthony Anderson, TV’s “blackish”), the nervy Guapo (former NFL QB Peyton Manning) and lead bully Valiente (Bobby Cannavale, TV’s “Vinyl”); newcomers like the Scottish Angus (David Tennant, TV’s “DuckTales”) and mute lab experiment Maquina.

His only friends are the weirdo comfort goat Lupe (Kate McKinnon, “Rough Night”) and a trio of larcenous hedgehogs named Una (Gina Rodriguez, TV’s “Jane the Virgin”), Dos (Daveed Diggs, “Wonder”) and Cuatro (Gabriel Iglesias, “Coco”) – don’t ask about Tres. And when legendary matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silverstre, TV’s “Sense8”) needs a bull for his final fight, it’s up to Ferdinand to show the other bulls the dangers that await them in the ring and beyond.

Blue Sky Studios is never going to put forth the kind of innovative ideas that you see from studios like Pixar – and that’s OK. Telling a story like “Ferdinand” doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. It’s all about letting the narrative do the heavy lifting. And it’s a lovely story, one with a surprisingly modern and empowering message when you consider the age of the source material. That notion of finding strength in being true to oneself is a concept that will resonate with kids.

That’s not to say that it’s all message; there’s a lot of goofy fun to be had in “Ferdinand.” There are loads of great slapstick bits scattered throughout, including an extended sequence in a china shop (!) and a dance-off against some show horses that is both unexpected and delightful. The animation is clean and engaging, with solid character design.

And the voice work is excellent. John Cena is outstanding; he’s never going to be a performer with a ton of range, but he’s got an undeniable charisma that shines through in all that he does. Give him a character like this one, where he can lean on his inherent and omnipresent earnestness, and he’s always going to be great. McKinnon is a delight as his sidekick Lupe; she’s practically a cartoon character already and embraces the absurd weirdness for which the part calls. The big mystery is how she’s not cast in every animated movie ever.

In terms of the more supporting roles, there are a couple of standouts. Cannavale does good work opposite Cena, striking just the right notes of bluster and bravado. Anderson is nicely energetic and Tennant is a delight. The filmmakers even find a way to exploit Manning’s flat, thick-headed drawling to solid effect. But really, it’s good work out of the entire ensemble.

“Ferdinand” isn’t the most sophisticated animated movie out there, but it doesn’t really matter. It is loyal to its source material in the best way, filling out the narrative while still staying true to the spirit of the story. And it’s a story worth telling, particularly in a climate where kids are facing bullying more than perhaps ever before.

“Ferdinand” may not be flashy, but sometimes substance matters more than style.

[4.5 out of 5]


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