Any picture book that a parent can read to kids in a few short minutes, no matter how delightful, requires fattening up to become a film. Sometimes Hollywood’s crassness kills the charm.
Happily, that is not the case with “Ferdinand,” an animated film inspired by Munro Leaf’s 1936 children’s classic that brims with bumptious fun, droll characters and poignant emotions. Honoring Leaf’s gentle “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a Spanish bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight in the ring, the film incorporates the book’s story arc, with stylistic nods to Robert Lawson’s drawings of Spanish scenes and people. But it also adds new incidents, characters and depth, with a contemporary wit that doesn’t coarsen the story — or not much, anyway.
The movie widens Ferdinand’s world, allowing him to bring others along with him on his quest to be who he wants to be, and to let others do the same. That theme and the anti-bullfighting message, so subtle in the book, are made bolder in the film, but never preachy. An overlong chase sequence on the streets of Madrid in the third act feels like padding. Yet even then, the characters’ personalities enrich it.
Director Carlos Saldanha, who worked on the “Rio” and “Ice Age” films, has chosen the voice cast well. In the title role, wrestler-turned-actor John Cena gives Ferdinand just the right balance of sweetness and strength. He becomes the wholly convincing center of the parable.
As in the book, we first meet Ferdinand when he’s a wee calf on a farm, where he discovers early on that smelling flowers in the pasture beats butting heads with the other young’uns, who mock him and long to prove themselves in the bullring. Still, he never wavers.
After his father fails to return from a bullfight, a grieving Ferdinand runs away from the farm. Nina (Lily Day), a little girl, finds him and takes him home to her father’s farm as a pet. There, Ferdinand grows into an enormous, happy fellow. One day, he follows Nina into town for a festival, gets stung by a bee and reacts wildly. Terrified, the townsfolk lasso him and send him back to the farm where he was born.
His owners hope that the famed toreador El Primero (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) will choose Ferdinand for the ring. Lupe (Kate McKinnon, in fine eccentric form as a whacked-out “calming goat”) is assigned to get Ferdinand in the right frame of mind.
Determined to escape again, Ferdinand enlists Lupe and three conniving hedgehogs to help. At first, the other bulls will have none of his conscientious objections, but he eventually wins them over. Ferdinand still ends up in the bullring, where, in the film’s touching finale, his peaceful nature triumphs over all. The movie ends up right where the book does, but after a longer trip.
In a riotous interlude that does little to further the plot, three Lipizzaner-like horses — all tossing manes and Austrian accents — mock the clumsy bulls and challenge them to a dance-off. It’s a random digression into utter silliness, but “Ferdinand” has the moral heft to carry it off and move on.
PG. At area theaters. Contains rude humor, action and some thematic material related to a slaughterhouse. 106 minutes.