The animated story “Ferdinand” is a load of bull, and that’s a compliment.
Brazilian director Carlos Saldanha, who helmed the “Rio” movies and two installments of the “Ice Age” franchise, transforms Munro Leaf’s 1936 children’s book into a free-wheeling and fun adventure story that will delight and amuse.
Ferdinand was born on a ranch in Spain that raises the bovine competition for bullfighters. But unlike his dad (voiced by Jeremy Sisto) and the other bulls around him, Ferdinand (voiced as a child by Colin H. Murphy) is a pacifist who would rather smell flowers than fight in the ring. One day, young Ferdinand runs away from the ranch, hops a train and ends up on a flower-grower’s farm, to be raised by a little girl, Nina.
Ferdinand grows up to be the biggest bull in the area, with the voice of wrestling star-turned-actor John Cena. He’s far too big to accompany Nina (voiced by Lily Day) and her father, Moreno (voiced by Raúl Esparza), to their village’s annual flower festival. Ferdinand goes anyway, but try as he might to be inconspicuous, he can’t help but cause a commotion. (The movie’s best sight gag is when Ferdinand tries to walk through a china shop.)
Caught by the authorities, Ferdinand is shipped back to the ranch where he was born. He gets coaching from a chatty goat named Lupe (voiced by Kate McKinnon) with the message that he has two choices: Fight in the ring or be shipped off to the butcher’s. Ferdinand is determined, though, to remain a peaceful bull, but also to help the other bulls escape a horrible fate.
Expanding a children’s book to feature length is always tricky — Walt Disney made a 7-minute “Silly Symphonies” version back in 1938 — but Saldanha and the Blue Sky Studios animators have fun filling in the gaps. Sure, Munro Leaf’s gentle book didn’t have a breakneck car chase, but the slapstick comedy has its payoffs. The biggest laughs come from the voice cast, particularly the fast-talking McKinnon, but also comic Flula Borg as a prancing horse; Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, David Tennant and Peyton Manning as Ferdinand’s fellow bulls; and Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias as a trio of klepto hedgehogs.
It’s Cena, as invisible as his “You Can’t See Me” wrestling persona, who gives “Ferdinand” its drive. His gruff voice matches the girth of the big bull, while his quiet delivery captures his gentle spirit.
★★★<br>Ferdinand<br>The story of a pacifist bull gets a big-screen treatment that’s full of laughs.<br>Where • Theaters everywhere.<br>When • Opens Friday, Dec. 15.<br>Rating • PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements.<br>Running time • 106 minutes.