Ferdinand: A Manna of Hope and Love today …
Last night, I saw the 4-D version of Ferdinand – an animated film adaption of a classic story that refuses to die down in a world that is besotted with achievement, success, greed and masculinity.
On one hand, there have been a series of films by Hollywood celebrating the ‘monomyth’ of the warrior and the hero, who fights against all odds (refer to my earlier blog …) including box-office successes such as Star Wars, Rocky, the Last Samurai et al – stories that immortalize a particular lens of masculinity, and embellish this strain of masculinity with rituals, practices, and values. The Last Samurai, for example, is my favorite example of a naïvely glamorizing the Samurais and greedily integrating it with ‘White Savior’ narrative – and constructing a narrative that is grandiose and paternalistic to say the least …
On the other hand, there is the Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (and illustrated by Robert Lawson) written in 1936 that has been translated into more than 60 languages and has never been out of the print.
Interestingly, the Story of Ferdinand was banned in Spain till Franco’s death for many of Franco’s supporters deemed it to be pacifist. Hitler called the book as ‘degenerative democratic propaganda’ and ordered it to be burned. In USA itself, the narrative was deemed to be everything from a fascist to a pacifist, to being anarchic and communist.
Several scholars have also talked about how the narrative crosses the gender lines. Of course, the story of Ferdinand was lauded by many including Mahatma Gandhi and Thomas Mann
Ferdinand: The 2017 Movie
Directed by Carlos Saldanha, who has also directed the Rio series and the Ice-age series, Ferdinand is an adaptation of the classic, brilliantly illustrating many of timeless themes that are critical in today’s world.
I don’t wish this blog to be a spoiler – the movie speaks of a young bull, Ferdinand, who runs away from the bull fighting training school – Casa del Toro, having seen his father fail to return from a famous bull-fight.
Ferdinand runs away as he fails to comprehend let alone appreciate the ‘warrior narrative’ that the other bulls subscribe to. He sees other bulls envisioning a grand day when each gets to beat the matador in the famous arena, amidst applauding men, women, and children and achieve immortality of sorts. Like any other school of martial arts, the young bulls are competitive, hyper masculine, and quite struck by the warrior lore.
Ferdinand refuses to internalize this mindless aggression, the bullying, the cruel rivalry, the masochistic denial of vulnerability and the over-romanticized narrative of the fighter straddling the fine line between living and dying … He for example is in love with a red blooming rose and nurtures and protects it.
He one day escapes from the school, and then meets a young girl Nina at a florist’s farm, and falls in love with her, her family, her dog, and the very beautiful flowers that burble all over the hills. Ferdinand discovers non-violence in his sylvan surroundings, as he grows into a giant of a bull. Nina and her father seek to protect him, as he transforms into a magnificent bull – whose girth belies his own softness and his femininity.
There comes a time when he, in his need to be with Nina and to be a part of the Flower festival of Ronda, strays into the streets – and very soon becomes a symbol of terror for its denizens. Nina and her father are unable to influence the city authorities, who capture him. The town of Ronda is soon rife of rumors of a giant terrifying beast that even ate a baby while causing mayhem in the streets. It is this reputation that sends Ferdinand back to Casa del Toro.
It is this reputation that reaches the ears of El Primo – a legendary and egotistical matador who is seeking his final battle with the most terrifying and intimidating bull before he retires. The movie of course takes many a potshot at this legend – including his perfect muscles and his perfect ass. El Primo chooses Ferdinand, believing that this would the most terrifying opponent that would mark his illustrious career.
However, it in Casa del Toro, when Ferdinand discovers the cruel truth – all bulls get to be slain by the matadors – and that the narrative of the battle between equal gladiators, that all his companions had subscribed to over the years, was full of bullshit. Ferdinand wanders into a room of trophies, and is appalled to see the very many horns of murdered bulls, adorning the wall, including those of his father, each signifying a ‘battle royale’ between a marauding bull and sees through the violence of Man.
But there is no other way out – for the bulls that are not seen as ‘warrior-material’ are sent to the slaughterhouse – creatively depicted in the movie as a modern robotized process automated plant that kills bull with cold efficiency and precision.
It is this double-bind that pushes Ferdinand into exploring new choices not just for himself but for the collective of other animals in captivity, and in this process, the narrative puts forth several questions and themes that hold the attention of its audiences – adults and children alike …
The Timeless Themes
Gender – Beyond Masculinity, Aggression, and Rivalry
I would agree with many that this movie takes a hard look at gender and masculinity. It raises many a question around how masculinity is held today. It explores how men and women are caught up with their deep personal fears and anxieties around their own femininity and vulnerability and how it is much easier to indulge in and subscribe to the warrior archetype.
Ferdinand receives projections of these anxieties and these fears from others because of his size and his girth, and yet demonstrates a softness and gentleness to remain relatively unscathed.
In today’s world where bullying, aggression, and mindless competitiveness holds many children and adults captive – the narrative of Ferdinand offers many an answers and stances.
The Limits of the Warrior Monomyth
Ferdinand the movie challenges the narrative structure of the Warrior Monomyth – a term used by Joseph Campbell in his book – The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The Warrior Monomyth provides a narrative structure, that was first deployed by Lucas in the Star Wars trilogy.
Joseph Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
In India, many thinkers including Raghu Ananthanarayanan have also leveraged the warrior monomyth – Raghu has designed leadership workshops and behavioral labs offerings around the Mahabharata warriors.
Ferdinand takes a different stance and exposes some of the limitations of the warrior narrative structure – it is perhaps this stance that terrified Hitler, Franco, and several American thinkers who rejected it straightaway. I do believe that the movie as well as the book offers a different narrative and identity archetype that may evoked a significant number of people.
Man and Nature
There are not many narratives that look at the balance between man and nature. Ferdinand and all the other animals are leveraged by the author as well as the director as alternative voices of the ecology. There is a certain balance and flow that the movie poignantly and subtly refers to between a bull, flowers and trees, and nature – seated far far away from the urban rigmarole of existence.
The messaging is subtle – but for a few still moments, the viewer is not just a witness to the beauty and the balance but becomes a part to it.
Love, Surrender, and Pacifism
Finally, there is the ephemeral and yet powerful experience of love that flows in the narrative. Ferdinand remains compassionate and loving – even to the human beings who have been cruel and sadistic. He seems to have an empathetic sensing of who the other is, and perseveres in offering love to all around him. There is a beautiful relationship between him and a crazy goat and three hedgehogs.
Till the end of the movie – Ferdinand espouses a humane quality of pacifism and love through acts of surrender and courage. I know that in today’s world, pacifism has little takers, love provokes cynicism and surrender is akin to abject misery – but the movie still tugs your heart and leaves you with some questions.
In the end, I must say that the movie version of the book is a real treat and is a must for those who have young children – I have a faith that watching this would lead to subliminal questioning of many a message that the world is giving us.