'Ferdinand' Brings an 80-Year-Old Classic to Life

The new animated film offers an empowering lesson about staying true to yourself. 

- Posted on Dec 18, 2017

Ferdinand the movie

Director Carlos Saldanha is bringing a beloved 80-year-old bedtime story to life with his latest animated film, Ferdinand.

Based on the children’s book by author Munro Leaf, The Story of Ferdinand follows a young bull who would rather smell flowers than fight. But because of his extraordinarily large size, people think he’s dangerous. The lessons of the book are that it’s important not to judge others and to always be yourself, something Saldanha says is just as relevant today as it was almost a century ago.

“It's a very powerful message,” Saldanha tells Guideposts.org of the movie’s theme. “I think that when people watch this movie, there's not going to be one single person in the audience that hasn’t, at one time in their lives, been through a moment of being doubted, of being misjudged, or being judged for how they look and not so much how they are truly on the inside.”

Saldanha, who’s previously worked on animated juggernauts like the Ice Age series and Rio, started the long process of adapting the story nearly seven years ago.

“Even though the book was a small book, I think the message was so big,” Saldanha says. “Ideally, I wanted to make a point beyond the book, and that's what inspired me to really pursue this as a full length animated movie.”

To do that, Saldanha spoke with the author’s family, to make sure they approved of him making changes to the story Leaf wrote. The director wanted to add more characters and a bit of excitement to the famous tale, so he created a bevy of farm animals to serve as Ferdinand’s friends in the film and added a car chase through a Spanish city.

“I really needed to figure out a way to connect the dots from beginning to end,” Saldanha explains. “Part of it is creating new characters, creating new situations, putting the characters through these bigger situations that extend the story of the book to make this movie engaging and exciting for the audience.”

He was able to recruit an all-star cast to voice those characters – people like John Cena who plays Ferdinand, Kate McKinnon, and Gina Rodriguez.

“There's all these great little side characters that allow for Ferdinand's journey to feel richer and more supported,” Saldanha says. “I think that's the key of this story -- even though the movie's through the perspective of Ferdinand, there is a sense that everybody goes through similar issues. I think that's what's so resonant.”

For Ferdinand, a bull who hates violence, struggling to stay true to himself is a big problem the character faces in the film. It’s one the director thinks a lot of young boys questioning the idea of performative masculinity encounter.

“It's very important for boys nowadays because it's like they've been pushed to follow a certain standard that is not right,” Saldanha says. “The right way [for you] is your way. I think it's a reflection moment for parents and also for children, to see that it's okay to be different. It's important to have tolerance, to accept others for who they are, but more than anything, it's about allowing people to coexist without having this forceful conflict.”

It’s a heavy topic to take on but that’s why the filmmaker fell in love with animation in the first place: because of the opportunity to teach important lessons in a fun, creative way.

“What I love about animation and what I've always loved about it is the power that you have to bring something to life that's out of your imagination, to create new worlds and take people to different places, and it's all done through a very artistic and interesting and complex creative process,” Saldanha says. “It has such a power because it reaches not only children, but adults too. It's a way of filmmaking that I think is probably the most accessible to all groups.”

He also loves that his job affords him the opportunity to engage with his own children.

“I really want to make a movie that I enjoy watching but at the same time, I can share with my children, so we can have a moment of family time,” Saldanha explains. “For me, that’s always the most important thing.”

It’s also why he’s been able to recruit so many famous faces to be involved in his films.

“The reason why a lot of these high profile actors want to do animation, a lot of it is because of their family,” Saldanha says. “Sometimes they are in movies that the kids cannot watch, either because of the violence, or because of the content, or because of the language and all those things, and when they do animation it's liberating for them. It was really cool to, in the premiere, have Gina Rodriguez surrounded by her family, by her parents, her nieces, nephews; that feeling of joy to be able to share a moment, it's priceless. That’s the magic of movies to me.”

He’s also proud that he’s been able to bring more diverse storytelling to people of all ages.

“Being diverse is good at all levels, not only the way you look, but the way you are, the way you act,” Saldanha says. “Acceptance breeds tolerance. You don't just coexist with the people that are just like you. We live in a world that is plural, not singular. If our kids can grow up with that, maybe they eventually will teach us a lesson.”

He hopes his own films can push a message of inclusion and acceptance to a new generation and remind audiences of the goodness of people (and animals).

“I think the movie is actually coming out at a good time,” Saldanha says. “People need to just relax, maybe stop and smell the flowers. Just really try to kind of look at the world [in a] positive [light], and reflect upon what is it that we want it to be.”

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