Ferdinand the Bull

Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 26, 2015

Yes I know that it won an Academy Award, but I can’t see that this adaptation adds anything to Munro Leaf’s book at all. It extends and plays out Robert Lawson’s original illustrations, and in doing so somehow turns the source’s pretty, fable-like simplicity into smarm, and even political naiveté …

(It might be argued that the book is just as guilty on that last count. Was Leaf thinking about the Spanish Civil War? The coup happened in July of 1936. At what point in 1936 did the book come out? The internet isn’t telling me, and I’m too lazy to look anymore. But if “Ferdinand” is a response to that war then I object! Opting simply to sit it out and smell the flowers may reassure the kids, and it certainly works in Sunday School. But there’s precept, and then there’s praxis. “Ferdinand” leaves all the crises unaddressed, all the tyrants in power!

Not intended to be about the Spanish Civil War? As you were then…)

… This playing out and extending also makes the book’s pleasant implausibility look plain silly. The Disney collective irons out the extremities—i.e. the five faces of the bull scouts—to smooth things out, and to further facilitate the commercial and ideological transaction that this and all their other films represent. Did I overstate that, or sound like a wild-eyed and humourless Marxist? Sorry—this film is making me grumpy!

I like this: it makes sense that they would have one narrator doing all the various character voices—this replicates the parent/child reading experience. All of the impending Scandinavian kid-film makers who will receive and improve state subsidies, the Weston Woods folks, Reading Rainbow and Rabbit Ears Radio will make this into the very core of their curricular and commercial strategies. It certainly worked for H.C. Andersen, E. Nesbit, A.A. Milne, etc., etc., etc..

But I don’t like, after all. The narrating strategy applies generally, and applies to best practices for sharing fun and substantial stories with children. In Ferdinand the Bull the reading just isn’t very good, more evocative of control than kind care. Have you ever felt pushed or crowded by Disney kid films? Get in line!