If you did not love Ferdinand the bull when you were young, it can only be because you didn’t encounter the classic children’s story. Because it is impossible to dislike Ferdinand.
Ferdinand’s story is an uncomplicated one. He’s just a bull who would rather sniff flowers than fight in a bullring — a subject perfect for the bestselling book and the Disney cartoon based on it (which won the 1938 Oscar for best short animated film).
Now Ferdinand is back in an enjoyable but spotty 106-minute animated film from the studio that made the “Ice Age” movies. While the pacifist bovine (voiced by John Cena) remains a lovable character, the movie’s running time indicates the difficulty of bringing the simple story to life: There’s a certain amount of hormone-fed expansion involved in making a feature out of all this.
“Ferdinand” places our hero on a Spanish ranch where bulls are bred for the ring. “You’re either a fighter or meat,” as one character puts it, and the ranch is in depressing proximity to a slaughterhouse.
This existential crisis makes a rather bleak backdrop for a kiddie movie, and it comes as a relief when Ferdinand temporarily escapes the ranch for a farm where animals can just sit around and smell flowers all day. Alas, Ferdinand’s massive size brings him to the attention of a preening matador, and a date in the bullring.
This being a cartoon feature, there are many talking animals, including a goat (“SNL” star Kate McKinnon) whose job it is to keep fighting bulls calm (given McKinnon’s manic vocal performance, this particular goat is miscast for that role). We’ve also got other bulls (voices include Anthony Anderson and, for whatever reason, Peyton Manning), some pompous horses and three hedgehogs.
The hedgehogs are part of this movie’s unevenness. Small, cute and screechy, they play like an afterthought inspired by the “Madagascar” penguins and the “Despicable Me” minions. It’s as though somebody realized that the story of Ferdinand has a terrific beginning and end but no actual middle, so something busy and loud was needed.
Director Carlos Saldanha worked on the “Ice Age” movies and the delightful “Rio,” all for Blue Sky Studios. He inclines toward flower-sniffing rather than slapstick, which likely puts him at odds with the target audience.
When “Ferdinand” is in stride, it conjures up plenty of charm, such as the sequence where the bulls ride a city bus to the bullring — all that macho business of running through the streets of Pamplona is thoroughly rejected in this movie’s gentler approach.
“Ferdinand” (3 stars)
It’s uneven, but this modern update of the beloved children’s book still conjures up the charm when it needs to. Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) is a bull who would rather sniff flowers than fight in a bullring, a sentiment the movie mostly shares.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Oak Tree, Woodinville, Cascade Mall