When Walt Disney Productions adapted The Story of Ferdinand into a short in 1938, the animation studio played up the main character’s queer undertones. Here was a bull who not only had no interest in squaring off against the virility of the matador, he also lounged on his side, propping his head up with a limp hoof, sniffing flowers and rolling his eyes to the heavens. The story’s inherent pacifism played into America’s isolationist tendencies pre-Pearl Harbor, likely helping Walt Disney to win an Oscar, four years before he’d earn a trophy for doing precisely the opposite with Der Fuhrer’s Face.
That’s not to say that Americans are significantly more or less dove-friendly in 2017, but any potential subtext of Munro Leaf’s children’s book has been bleached out in the marketplace-oriented Ferdinand. The titular bull (John Cena, sounding like Seth Rogan for the duration of the film) remains staunchly opposed to being forced to spar: against bullfighters, against other bulls, even against the idea of fighting about being opposed to fighting, at one early point telling a churlish rival to just hit him if that’s what he feels he has to do.
But in Blue Sky Studios’s adaptation of Leaf’s book, the plight of the bull who just wants to enjoy the beauty of nature is presented in the only terms that make sense to the American common denominator. Here, Ferdinand stands up for the preeminence of personal individuality. And the film is proud of that, which in theory would make for a truly Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood-worthy source of calm in the center of a stormy cultural moment.
Sadly, director Carlos Saldana and the screenwriters tasked with blowing out Leaf’s tale into a feature-length attraction opt out of giving Ferdinand any characteristics that would justify his being taken as a crusader for individuality. Complicating his case is the fact that the zoo, Casa del Toros, he calls home contains far more memorably gonzo personalities. He’s got a can-eating goat, Lupe (Kate McKinnon), with a wicked underbite as a personal trainer, a Scottish-jabbering protégé, Angus (David Tennant), who’s constantly blinded by his own bangs, and suffers the heavily German-accented taunts of a trio of dressage horses who mince and dance in the next paddock over like the cast of Sprockets from SNL. And yet Ferdinand is the one who has a lesson to teach the rest of them? Tomorrow’s virtue signallers deserve a better hero.