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Film Review—Blue Sky Bull Rushes Forward

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2017 – 3:37 PM

by Adam Sherman

Ever since it switched its focus from visual effects to animation features, Blue Sky Studios has struggled to stand-out from its competitors at Disney and Dreamworks.

While their debut, Ice Age, was well-received and even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature, most of the studios’ output has struggled. The sophomore feature, Robots, was quickly forgotten in spite of its fiscal success; Blue Sky succeeded at capturing the essence of Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!… only for it to be overshadowed by another studio’s far shallower take on The Lorax. Rio was loved for a time, but is now more likely remembered for the Angry Birds spin-off game (though it does seem to have staying power, owing to Rio 2‘s slightly higher box office gross), whilst Epic was simply mediocre all-around. In fact, outside  of the Ice Age franchise (whose films’ quality continues to snowball downhill and whose cast really should’ve gone extinct by now) and The Peanuts Movie (whose success could be attributed to the heavy involvement and oversight by the Schulz estate), Blue Sky has struggled in terms of respectability.

And now, to top it all off, we have John “You Can’t See Me” Cena as a bull. Could this be the moment that Blue Sky Studios trips and breaks its nose? Surprisingly enough… no. In fact, Ferdinand may be just the shot in the arm the studio needed to really start leaping toward respectability.

Basef on The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, the titular Ferdinand (John Cena) has no interest in arenas and matadors like his fellow calves, but smelling flowers and being peaceable. He initially escapes his old home and goes to live with a young girl named Nina (Lily Day), where he spends the next few years frolicking amongst the fields. However, during an altercation at a flower market, Ferdinand is mistaken for a raging beast and returned to his old home and companions. There, he must confront his past, his companions, and his own ideals if he is to escape.

John Cena, well-known for his memetic pro-wrestling career and playing either tough-guy action heroes or self-parodies, surprisingly manages to convey a sense of ease and joy as the titular bull. You get a sense that he’s genuinely content with himself, and really doesn’t want to hurt anyone. None of the other cast members bring anything new to the table, but Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), Angus (David Tenant), and Lupe (Kate McKinnon) stand out performance-wise. However, outside these four, most of the other characters will be more remembered for the gags they are involved in than their own personalities.

Where the film truly shines, is through its plot and themes, particularly the latter. Early in the film, Valiente cements that in their world, you’re either a fighter (who faces the matador in the ring) or your meat (literally, as it turns out). However, the film demonstrates just how misery-inducing and self-destructive such a mindset can be. By contrast, Ferdinand’s pacifism, capacity for empathy, and acceptance of emotionality stands out, allowing him to find fulfillment in life, and try to point his old friends in a path to a brighter future. In an era where toxic masculinity is being put under the looking-glass and our culture begins to reconsider the idea of strength, it’s heartening to see an icon of manliness like a bull point out that its okay to cry if you’re hurt or afraid.

Unfortunately, while Ferdinand has a solid core, the film still stumbles. Most of the human characters come off as flat, and those that are shown to have some depth never really get explored. The same could be said for the majority of the animal cast, who aren’t given much to do and will be more remembered for the gags they are involved in than their personalities. In fact, said gags will likely come off more as annoying and distracting than tension-relieving. The film itself is also rather heavy-handed when it comes to its themes, and doesn’t put the titular bull’s own ideology under the same microscope as it does his friends. Finally, in comparison to Coco’s near-completely hispanic cast, it can come off as jarring to hear Cena, Cannavale, Jerrod Carmichael and McKinnon play Spanish animals. (Tennant gets a pass on account of his character being Scottish.)

Regardless, Ferdinand serves as a solid foundation for the future of Blue Sky Studios and ideally, this could mean an upswing in quality for future productions.

7.5/10 – Ir a una arena, y ver esta película. Ahora. (Go see this movie. Now.)

Ferdinand is distributed by 20th Century Fox, and charges into theaters on Dec. 15.

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