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.