Sunday, 17 December 2017

Movie Review: Ferdinand (2017)
The plot: Fighting bull Ferdinand (John Cena) does not want to fight. Having escaped the ranch Casa Del Toro as a calf, and growing up on Nina (Lily Day) and Juan (Juanes)’s flower farm, he would much rather spend his days smelling the roses. However, when a day out on the town goes wrong and he finds himself back at the Casa Del Toro, he is forced to confront what society has deemed as his only purpose. As the calming goat Lupe (Kate McKinnon) and the other bulls Valiente (Bobby Cannavale), Bones (Anthony Anderson), Guapo (Peyton Manning), Machina (Tim Nordquist) and Angus (David Tennant) question why a bull wouldn’t want to fight a matador, Ferdinand plans to escape and, hopefully, spare himself and the others from a terrible fate.

As much as I am really starting to dread films involving John Cena nowadays (mainly because people still think just yelling “IT’S JOHN CENA!” whenever he shows up is a fresh joke), his performance here is actually pretty good. He ends up getting overtaken by his supporting cast, admittedly, but when he’s given a chance to shine, he brings that iconic charisma to a character that is worth sympathizing with. Cannavale as the alpha-bull Valiente works alright, even if it pales in comparison to his last role in a film arguably made for kids. Tennant gets to trot out his native Scottish accent as Angus, and that is literally all the character he has, Anderson is energetic without being too annoying, and Peyton Manning kind of falls through the cracks. Makes sense, considering the man is not an actor.

Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias do alright as a trio of hedgehogs, even if Iglesias is reduced to mostly food jokes for his character, and Flula Bord, Boris Kodjoe and Sally Phillips as a trio of German horses… aside from that being a statement that now exists in the universe, they are incredibly abrasive in their snootiness without really being funny. I’d call them flat-out annoying, except there’s still someone here who is even worse: Kate McKinnon. I can’t remember wanting so badly for a single character to shut the hell up before, but her Kristen Wiig-isms makes for a rather unwelcome presence. Considering she’s one of the main supporting characters, that is in no way a good thing.

We’re dealing with Blue Sky Studios animation, and while it’s nowhere near the worst I’ve seen from them, it’s also really underwhelming. The texture quality makes it look like every human and animal came out of a plastic mould, as if they were focusing solely on how to make toys out them after the fact. It’s all too shiny and rounded to work right, which is surprising given how these people clearly know how to animate hair, fur and even dirt while making it look distinct. The designs for the characters is decent enough with the animals, but the humans in this thing are pretty freakish. It goes for exaggerated proportions, with inhumanly long legs underneath tiny-ass torsos, but their animation doesn’t make that decision seem fitting. When everyone walks around like they have regular human proportions, and yet they look like they’re late for their Hotel Transylvania 3 audition, it’s a form of disconnect that makes this film end up looking cheaper than it probably is.

Of course, none of the visuals here are nearly as distracting as this film’s writing. Ignoring how irritating some of these performances are to begin with, their dialogue in no way helps the situation because of how dated the jokes are. How dated? Try “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” levels of dated. Bloody hell, that one-liner was old before I was even born, so you can imagine how well it turns out now in 20-goddamn-17. There’s also a few instances of 90’s-style “let’s try and make the characters sound kewl” lines that feel like they date themselves as they’re being spoken; even the interesting characters fall to this at certain points. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, when the writing tries for something other than ‘annoying = funny’, most of the dialogue just involves putting down the main character. I know that that’s part of the narrative, showing how much they don’t believe or even understand Ferdinand’s intentions, but it gets driven into the ground so much that it starts becoming mean-spirited for its own sake. And to top it all off, all of this collectively feels like the film is trying to stall for time, blabbing about whatever could be construed as interesting to fill out the running time.

Not that the film needs to do that, though, and this is where Cena’s performance and character starts to bring some real good to the production. The film’s story, when it can be bothered to stick to it, is about an animal bred for fighting who does not want to fight. It’s a parable about pacifism, one that’s made strong by how surprisingly dark the consequences are. I never thought I’d see a family film with a scene set in a literal slaughterhouse, but that’s how willing this film is to admit that how stacked the odds are against Ferdinand and the other bulls. When we see him try and preach his non-violent ways, the negative responses he gets are quite accurate to real-world attitudes. Pacifism nowadays is interchangeable with cowardice, and no matter where your allegiances lie, you’re not going to find a lot of support for it. Either you’ll try and be convinced that empathy and compassion are signs of weakness, or you’ll be told that freely punching people in the face is an entirely rational thing to do. By acknowledging the dark possibilities of the story and showing an understanding of both the support and outcry over them, Ferdinand’s philosophy turns into something that is rather commendable. As someone who has a rather violent past behind him and who finds advocating for pacifism to be an uphill struggle, seeing a family film of all things give this kind of intelligent and poignant take on it is quite refreshing. I just wish that the film knew that it had this much power behind it and used it to its fullest, instead of what we end up getting overall.

All in all, I’m rather torn about this one. On one hand, it’s frequently irritating, the pacing is sluggish and feels it’s just trying to pass the running time more than anything else, and the animation is rather pedestrian. On the other, when the film actually manages to focus on its lead character, John Cena’s performance gels perfectly with the writing to show that the peaceful way has a lot of strength in it. It benefits from being set around the concept of bullfighting, which has its own activism behind it in terms of getting it to stop, but even removed from its animalistic ties, this turns out to be a rather touching look at what pacifism is capable of, all without managing to belittle those willing to fight. As Ferdinand himself points out, he’s not trying to make the others live life as he does; he just wants to them live their own. I basically have to weigh up the film’s first half, where it’s at its most annoying, and the second half, where it’s at its most effective. With how touchy I can get with more abrasive styles of humour, I’m sure that not everyone will react as badly to it as I did, and the good I see here is worth being experienced. I guess… yeah, I’d say check it out.

It ranks higher than Happy Death Day, as what makes this film stand out is solely its own merits, rather than how it reinterprets long-running narrative conventions. Films advocating for non-violence are a lot rarer than films involving time travel nowadays. However, since this is still held back by its more grating elements, it falls short of My Little Pony: The Movie, which not only delivers some solid morals but serves as an example of fantasy storytelling that is in even shorter supply right now.

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