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FERDINAND

Producer: Bruce Anderson, John Davis, Lori Forte and Lisa Marie Stetler
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Writer: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland
Stars: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant, Anthony Anderson, Peyton Manning, Lily Day, Juanes, Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, Gabriel Iglesias, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips, Boris Kodjoe, Jerrod Carmichael, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Jeremy Sisto, Raul Esparza and Karla Martinez
Studio: 20th Century Fox

C+

How do you adapt a blissfully short children’s book for the screen? In the case of Munro Leaf’s 1936 “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a bull who prefers smelling flowers to fighting matadors, Walt Disney solved the problem by turning it into a seven-minute featurette that was quite faithful to its source and—incidentally—won an Oscar. In refashioning the tale into a full-length movie, director Carlos Saldanha and his stable of six writers (three scripters and three others with “story by” credit) must expand things astronomically, adding episode after episode and character after character. The result isn’t unpleasant, but it is episodic and protracted, burying the book’s simple message in an avalanche of unrelated clutter.

The first addition is a prologue in which young Ferdinand (voiced by Colin H. Murphy), whose devotion to beauty rather than butting heads earns him the scorn of the other calves at the Casa del Toro, especially the aggressive Valiente (Jack Gore). After his father is taken off to do battle in Madrid and never returns, Ferdinand escapes and finds refuge at a farm with sweet Nina (Lily Day), her father Juan (Juanes) and their dog Paco (Jerrod Carmichael). There he quickly grows up to be a big lug (pro wrestler turned actor John Cena), who loves nothing more than gamboling in the fields sniffing the roses.

Disaster occurs when he sneaks into the local village for the annual flower festival, where his appearance causes all sorts of commotion, including—inevitably—a visit to a china shop. It’s there that the bee sting sends him into a frenzy; he’s captured and sent off to the Casa, where Valiente (now Bobby Cannavale), Angus (David Tennant), Bones (Anthony Anderson), Manquina (Tim Nordquist) and Guapo (Peyton Manning) do not exactly welcome him back.

The arrival of arrogant matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre), looking for a suitable opponent in his final match, leads to a competition among the bulls, which Ferdinand—forced reluctantly into combat—wins. He convinces his hyperactive “calming goat” Lupe (Kate McKinnon) to escape with him back to Nina’s farm, and they accomplish their goal with the help of a trio of zany hedgehogs—Una (Gina Rodriguez), Doss (Daveed Diggs) and Cuatro (Gabriel Iglesias)—by defeating the snooty show horses in the next corral—Hans (Flula Borg), Klaus (Boris Kodjoe and Greta (Sally Phillips)—in what amounts to a dance-off.

But Ferdinand’s insistence that they rescue Guapo and Valiente, who have been sent to a nearby slaughterhouse—leads to a prolonged chase that separates Ferdinand from the others and sees him captured to face off against El Primero. The bout does not, however, turn out as the matador expects, and Ferdinand is freed to be reunited with Nina and his other friends.

This expansion of Leaf’s little story, which—as Disney realized—was more of a vignette suitable for featurette treatment, has been decently, if fairly predictably, managed. It’s arguable that too many episodes have been added and the actions scenes overextended, since the picture runs close to two hours, while most children’s animated movies are ninety minutes or less. But the animation from Blue Sky (the makers of the “Ice Age” series) is agreeably colorful, the characterizations are good enough (even if the manic Lupe comes off as awfully reminiscent of similar high-energy figures from other animated flicks), and the voice work is nimble (even if it’s odd that the main characters are accent-free but the supporting ones are not). Unfortunately the songs—two by Nick Jonas and one by Juanes, played during the closing credits—are forgettable.

The notion that this “Ferdinand” might bring a second Oscar to Leaf’s pacifist bull is unlikely, but it provides amiable enough family entertainment for an undemanding holiday crowd.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Producer: Jennifer Fox, Todd Black and Denzel Washington
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Nazneen Contractor, Shelly Henning, Tony Plana, Sam Gilroy, DeRon Horton, Niles Horton, Amari Cheatom, Pej Vahdat, Brittany Ishibashi, James Paxton and Joseph David-Jones
Studio: Sony/Columbia Pictures

C+

Like his debut feature “Nightcrawler,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort is about a character—or more properly A Character—who practically begs to be inhabited by a star giving the most flamboyant sort of performance. Unlike Louis Bloom, whom Jake Gyllenhaal played so creepily in the earlier picture, however, the titular character of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a decent, principled man, whose uprightness is so abrasive that it often rubs others the wrong way. It’s a showcase role for Denzel Washington, who invests it with his customary vitality and brings a good deal of poignancy to the character’s temporary fall from grace, even though as a whole the picture feels manufactured rather than authentic and the plot goes haywire in the final act.

Israel—who always uses his full name, and at one point sheepishly explains the “Esq.” to a client—is an artifact from the seventies, an aggressively activist lawyer devoted to the cause of social justice. He’s literally living in the past, sporting an Afro, wearing tattered, mismatched coats and trousers and living in an apartment stocked with posters of iconic figures from the civil rights and free speech movements (and lined with thousands of vinyl LPs). He keeps his multitudinous files in paper form, on note cards he can locate immediately as needed, though he has modernized sufficiently to allow for post-its to serve as flaggers.

He also lies, we are directed to assume by the stiff turn he makes onto the steps of his apartment building and his obsessive, repetitive behavior (like calling the code violation office repeatedly to complain of construction noise), somewhere on the autism spectrum. Though not emphasized to the extent that it is in another professional field on “The Good Doctor,” that identifies him as a sort of savant, who can cite case law from memory and has spent years accumulating material for a massive class-action suit against the misuse of plea bargaining, which has put many innocent defendants in prison simply because they could not afford proper defense representation (or bail).

It also explains why Israel has worked for forty years behind the scenes in the small office of William Henry Jackson (whom we never see), a man dedicated to, as Roman puts it at one point, “attempting the impossible for the ungrateful.” Jackson has been doing all the outside tasks—conferring with clients, handling the courtroom appearances—while Israel has been doing all the research, preparing evidence and arguments.

His life is turned upside down, however, when Jackson has a heart attack from which he will probably never recover. Thrust into taking over the office’s cases, Israel proves eloquent but irritating in court, immediately landing him with a contempt citation. He is also confronted by the decision of Jackson’s niece—armed with power of attorney—to close the financially ailing practice down. Everything will be handled by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick former pupil of Jackson’s who now runs an L.A. mega-firm, and who, it turns out, idolized the old man. (He regularly quotes from his classroom dicta—which, though unattributed here, actually come from the works of Voltaire—and was, Roman learns, giving kickbacks to Jackson for cases passed on to him.)

News about Jackson’s darker side impels Israel to reconsider his staunchly ethical practices even as he is being pulled back to his activist past by encountering Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), head of the local branch of a community-service lawyer group who will become a potential romantic interest. He will not only join George’s firm but be confronted with a terrible decision involving one of his clients, Langston Bailey (Niles Fitch), who’s being charged with first-degree murder in the death of a convenience store clerk even though the real gunman, Carter Johnson (Amari Cheatom), got away. Bailey tells Israel where Johnson is hiding, information that could serve as a basis for a plea bargain; but there’s a major reward being offered for information leading to Johnson’s arrest. What to do?

Up to this point Gilroy’s film has been an engagingly flashy if admittedly unrealistic portrait of a quirky character, sparked by Washington’s virtuosity, but while the introduction of this plot twist allows the star to add mournful shades to his performance while Israel struggles with his conscience, it also forces Gilroy to work overtime to find some way to end the scenario on a triumphal note while wrapping up all the various subplots. He doesn’t succeed; things go increasingly awry in the final half-hour (there’s a gratuitous car chase that ends with a comic thud, for example), which is not helped by the tendency for the script to italicize the pronouncements of characters about the ethical issues it’s raising,

Still, it’s undeniably enjoyable to watch Washington sink his teeth into such a florid role, even if he can’t always invest it with dramatic credibility. And while Ejogo is saddled with a thankless part, Farrell offers a nifty turn as a guy who inches back toward his law=school idealism even as his inspiration for doing so is straying from it. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, though it’s rather clumsily handled. The film is technically solid, with Robert Elswit’s production design and Kevin Cavanaugh’s cinematography working to capture the L.A. ambience. And the costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuk has fashioned for Roman prior to his transformation to nattiness are amusingly goofy.

One can enjoy “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” as a pure star vehicle, but as a drama it falls short. And couldn’t at least a bit of credit have been given to Voltaire?