By Preston Wilder
Looks like it’s going to be a Hispanic Christmas, at least for filmgoing kiddies. Just a week after the Mexican-themed Coco comes another cartoon, the Spanish-themed Ferdinand, based on Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand which came out in 1936 and is one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. That’s where similarities end, alas, because Coco is a moving, astoundingly adult meditation on transience and mortality whereas Ferdinand is a film about a bull who likes to smell flowers – yet there is one more aspect in which the two are alike. The current panic over causing offence and/or ‘cultural appropriation’ means that both films treat their respective cultures with po-faced reverence – even the bits that may be controversial.
Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’, is a pretty morbid custom, but Coco doesn’t try to dilute it for non-Mexican audiences. Similarly, bullfighting is a vexed part of Spanish culture (even, increasingly, in Spain) but Ferdinand doesn’t bring much in the way of animal-lover’s indignation; Ferdy and his friends do try to avoid going in the ring – especially once they realise that “the bull never wins” – but the pageantry is lavish, the spectators seem to be enjoying themselves, and the toreador is less cruel than comical. This is a film where a Plaza-ful of blood-sport-happy Spaniards waving white handkerchiefs and asking for the bull to be spared, like ancient Romans granting a thumbs-up to some lucky gladiator, counts as a happy ending.
So much for cultural tidbits; what about the film as a kiddie cartoon? I wish there were more I could say on that subject, but Ferdinand is mostly generic (caveat: I watched the dubbed-into-Greek version), leaning hard on the usual be-yourself, everyone-special-in-their-own-special-way platitudes. Ferdinand is a fighting bull – a prime Spanish toro – who refuses to fight, being all soft and sensitive instead. There’s a veritable gallery of talking-animal sidekicks, from a manic “calming goat” to a trio of hedgehogs named Uno, Dos and Cuatro (“We do not speak of Tres,” they say sadly, crossing themselves). There’s a dance-off between bulls and Teutonic show horses, like in Pitch Perfect 2 when the Bellas squared off against Das Sound Machine. There’s a chase where the animals drive a truck (opposable thumbs? who needs them?), followed by a frantic chase through the streets of Madrid – and that’s still not the ending, with the entire cast converging on the Plaza for the bullfight climax.
The catch is that The Story of Ferdinand, despite its success and notoriety (its pacifist message went down badly in the belligerent late 30s), is a scant 32 pages long; the film, on the other hand, runs 108 minutes, which might be fine if it had something to say (Coco runs 105) but drags when it’s just a trifle. Ferdinand is an attractively simple hero, the peace-loving slacker, the gentle giant whose appearance leads to him being misunderstood à la Herman Munster and Casper the Friendly Ghost – but the film muddles that simplicity, enlisting him in heroic feats like organising an escape from the bull training camp, not to mention saddling him with the inevitable daddy issues. The running-time gets padded with an interlude on a flower farm where the bull comes of age (only to be returned to the camp as an adult) and a sub-plot where underperforming bulls are packed off to a slaughterhouse, conveniently situated next to the camp so Ferdy can rescue his comrades in mid-escape.
This is not a great week at the cinema (too bad it also happens to be Christmas week), wedged between last week’s one-two punch of Coco and The Last Jedi and next week’s unveiling of a proper non-multiplex movie, The Killing of a Sacred Deer at the newly-reopened Pantheon. Greek speakers can try Jamaica, which is clumsy but sometimes affecting, and of course grown-ups also have All the Money in the World to fall back on; kids, however, have only Ferdinand this week, its defiant, change-the-world message – “You’re not just a pair of horns!” – at odds with its formulaic nature. In itself, this harmless, rather overdone crowd-pleaser is no more objectionable than a host of other talking-animal cartoons; set beside the vaulting ambition and emotional impact of Coco, however (or the charming inventiveness of Paddington 2, to cite another, non-Hispanic-themed movie for a Christmas family outing), it has all the finesse of a bull in a china shop. To paraphrase Kurtz’s cry of woe in Heart of Darkness: ‘The toro! The toro!’.
DIRECTED BY Carlos Saldanha
WITH THE VOICES OF John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale
US 2017 108 mins