Based on the beloved 1936 children's picture book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, the new animated film "Ferdinand" tells the heartwarming tale of a gentle bull who wants nothing more than to spend his days on the farm sitting peacefully and smelling the flowers -- a pastime that earns him the scorn of his peers, who are more likely to spend their time fighting, butting heads, and dreaming of glory in the bullfights of Madrid.
It's a sweet, simple story, but this being a modern animated kids film, of course its makers pad things out to feature length by adding a lot of extraneous characters, goofy slapstick, and action sequences like car chases, a race through a slaughterhouse floor (the film is surprisingly frank about the future most bulls face, both inside and out of the bullfighting ring), and even an extended dance-off between the bulls and a trio of snooty German dressage horses.
With an appealing lead vocal performance from John Cena (demonstrating what an immensely likeable screen presence he continues to have, even when you can't see him), "Ferdinand" is at its best when it's being as earnest as its source material. The film's pop culture-heavy humor more often than not tends to land with a thud. The exception to this rule is pretty much anything that comes out of the mouth of an excitable goat voiced by Kate McKinnon, but that has less to do with the material, and everything to do with the fact that McKinnon is a national treasure. She's a master of comedic timing and delivery.
Whatever its missteps, it's hard to be too harsh on a film that -- in its own kid-friendly way -- attempts to tiptoe into the subject of toxic masculinity, putting forth a message that brute power isn't the only kind of strength that matters, and that machismo tends to cause more problems than it solves. With the cultural landscape looking like it currently does, it's an admirable and even necessary discussion, especially when aimed at the youngest of viewers.
"Ferdinand" will keep the kiddies entertained while imparting them with a few life lessons along the way. Most importantly, its heart is in the right place -- even if it does make viewers dig through a few layers of extraneous silliness to find it.