Ferdinand (voiced by Colin H. Murphy), a flower-loving little calf with a peaceful nature, has no interest in fighting in the ring. Which is a problem since he lives in a Spanish bull-training camp where all the other battle-bred bovines regard him as a cowardly weirdo. Eventually a tragic incident spurs Ferdinand to escape to an idyllic and fragrant farm. Where, raised by adoring young Nina (Lily Day), he grows into an enormous yet defiantly gentle and sweet-natured bull (John Cena). All goes well for the lovable lug until a mishap in town has him mistaken for a ferocious fighter and chosen to duel with esteemed matador El Primero (Miguel Ângel Silvestre). Slung back into the training camp, Ferdinand rails against all attempts to mold him into something he is not and tries to rally the other bulls into escaping their fate.
Blue Sky Studios' animated output veers from the inspired to the asinine. However the Academy Award-nominated Ferdinand emerges as one of their strongest works yet. Based on the children's book written by Munro Leaf wih illustrations by Robert Lawson, it is essentially a CG update of the classic Walt Disney short Ferdinand the Bull (1938). Disney's Oscar-winning original was a pioneering fable about nonconformity and the pitfalls of society trying to force a square peg into a round hole. The 'remake' expands the message with Ferdinand's wry observation that "weird is the new normal." Which could almost serve as a rallying cry for a young generation grappling with identity politics in our contentious sociopolitical climate. Co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland invest the story with subtly nuanced psychological layers adding a traumatic back-story (Ferdinand loses his father (Jeremy Sisto) in the bullfighting ring), an aggressive rival (Bobby Cannavale) grappling with his own feelings of inadequacy, and a surprisingly potent statement on how masculinity and sensitivity need not be mutually exclusive as our hero gently goads the other bulls into sharing their feelings.
As with the Ice Age franchise - also directed by Brazilian-born Carlos Saldanha - Blue Sky here prove they have zany Warner Brothers-style slapstick set-pieces down to a fine art. Ferdinand causing chaos at the flower festival proves an early highlight but his hilarious attempts to resuscitate a comatose bunny and dance battle against a trio of snooty German horses are also especially funny. On the downside, rather than integrate the gags into the plot, the film has a tendency to delay the evolving story for the sake of zany antics. Along with the predictably inane pop tunes scattered throughout (although John Powell's score is exemplary and the theme song 'Home' by Nick Jonas is pretty good) the film also suffers a few too many superfluous characters despite solid comic performances all round. While John Cena continues to prove his worth as both a comedic performer and affable leading man, even in anthropomorphic animal form, SNL superstar Kate McKinnon is especially delightful as Lupe the 'calming' goat who assumes the role of Ferdinand's coach. Former Doctor Who David Tennant also steals a few scenes as the shortsighted Aberdeen-bred Angus who has not quite twigged that he is not in Scotland anymore. Despite its wayward nature the story is never less than compelling, culminating in a finale that remains true to the essence of both Leaf's book and the Disney short only tweaked for more modern animal-loving sensibilities. Indeed Ferdinand skilfully pulls off moments of heartwarming pathos and charm. To the point where the sincerity with which Kate McKinnon's invests Lupe's climactic query: "Is this love?" is enough to yoke tears from lesser mortals. Not me though, I'm far too macho. Sniff.