This holiday season, there's all manner of conflict at your local movie theater — Jedis battling in the stars, Winston Churchill warring in Europe and Olympic athletes dueling on ice. And then there's that 2,000-pound bull that refuses to fight.
"Ferdinand " is a first-rate animated tale adapted from the beloved 1936 children's book about a pacifist Spanish bull who just loves to sit around and sniff flowers. It's often dark, sometimes whacky, but true to the heart of the book and beautifully brought to life in modern Spain.
Carlos Saldanha, the director of "Rio" and "Ice Age" movies, and screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland faced a daunting task turning a spare 66-page book by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson into more than 100 minutes of film.
But they've largely succeeded, while adding more serious issues along the way, including animal rights, rigged economic systems, nature versus nurture, cowardice, and the importance of looking out for each other. Not bad for a kid's flick, huh? It also plunges another sword in the sport of bull fighting.
At its core, "Ferdinand" is an anti-bullying statement that stars a bull. In a neat twist, that bull who refuses to fight is voiced by professional wrestler John Cena, a man who makes his living with violence.
Ferdinand is bred to fight but won't. His dad and peers at a bull fighting ranch all want to go into the ring and take on a matador. "Is it OK if it's not my dream?" the young Ferdinand asks. No, he's told. "You're either a fighter or you're meat."
After his father disappears, our bullish conscientious objector manages to escape and ends up in a peaceful flower farm, lovingly taken care of by a young girl. Good for Ferdinand, but bad for the filmmakers, who have more than another hour more to fill.
Enter a cavalcade of strange and bewildering creatures: three crafty hedgehogs, three condescending Lipizzaner horses and an unhinged goat called Lupe. Kate McKinnon voices the goat and her performance is Robin Williams-in-"Aladdin" level work. A film that was overly dark suddenly gets an infusion of silliness and comic genius.
We take a few detours — there's a brilliant dance competition between break-dancing bulls and the prancing horses; an unorthodox running of the bulls, this time with the animals chased by bad guys through the streets on Segways; and an utterly wonderful interpretation of a bull in a china shop.
Ferdinand is the only bull to realize that the entire bullfighting game is fixed and tries to convince his peers to flee (the voice actors include a very good Peyton Manning — yes, that Peyton Manning — as a bull prone to vomiting, and a hysterical David Tennant as a very hairy Scottish bull.)
Ferdinand rescues some of his pals from the "chop shop" — note: seeing this with your kids may become uncomfortable if you promised hamburgers afterward — then sacrifices himself for the good of the group and ends up facing the meanest matador in all of Spain in the ring in Madrid. Will he finally fight? Will he die for his convictions?
There are a few weird notes. It's a little strange to hear the Ferdinand we grew up with under a Spanish cork tree now have a SoCal surfer accent, saying he's "stoked," ''hold that thought" and "this is some next level stuff." He also does that weird thing where he talks to fellow animals but is mute when it comes to communicating with humans.
And the musical choices are a little odd. Nick Jonas offers the new soaring ballad "Home" and the Colombian artist Juanes delivers with "Lay Your Head On Me." But did we really need the unearthing of the 20-year-old "Macarena"? And Pitbull's overexposed "Freedom" makes little sense here unless it's because of the pun on his name. It would have been nice to have a more Spanish-heavy soundtrack.
Still, for all its problems, this is a film with world-class animation, revealing everything from astonishingly rich crowd scenes to rusty details on an old pail. The animators have managed to make wet fur feel tactile and show the headlights of cars bouncing off other cars.
So for the overall message of the film — "Live your own life" — plus the rich animation and the completely looney McKinnon, we have one word: Ole!
"Ferdinand," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for "rude humor, action and some thematic elements." Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG: Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits