There’s always an uh-oh moment when you hear that Hollywood is taking a beloved but narratively thin children’s story and expanding it into a feature-length movie. You can instantly picture the chase sequences and disposably topical humor that committees of studio meddlers will tack onto the source material in a dubious push to get it multiplex-ready.
This week’s case in point: “Ferdinand,” an adaptation of a quaint picture book about a peace-loving bull that comes to us from Blue Sky, the outfit behind “Ice Age,” and features the voice of John Cena. (The muscly multi-hyphenate from West Newbury is a mildly surprising pick for the lead role; he brings a familiar breeziness, but does that bullish build matter more than star quality, especially in animation?) The good news is that while the movie is susceptible to some pandering, it also takes the story’s charming core elements and gives them a contemporary luster.
This is still the tale of a creature ever inclined to stop and, yes, smell the flowers rather than locking horns with other bulls or sparring with some diva matador. It’s just that here, the verdant Spanish pastures stretch even farther and are more CG vibrant, and the bullfighting ring in which Ferdinand inadvertently finds himself is a vaster, even more intimidating visual swirl.
Chances are you know Munro Leaf’s 1936 classic “The Story of Ferdinand,” which the author humbly recalled writing to “provide a quiet laugh.” You might also know the story’s previous cartoon incarnation, “Ferdinand the Bull,” a “Silly Symphonies”-vintage Disney short from 1938.
The feature-length update gets an appreciative handler in Carlos Saldanha, who parlayed work on “Ice Age” sequels into making “Rio,” a culturally infused passion project. You can feel a similar sensibility in this one’s Spanish-accented atmosphere, from “Don Quixote” windmills to Madrid traffic.
The film veers into the downmarket-filler lane for a sequence in which Ferdinand and his toro cohorts (Bobby Cannavale and unexpectedly prominent novelty act Peyton Manning, among others) tear through the Spanish capital — in a truck. Meanwhile, a stretch set among a ranch ensemble only intermittently approaches the “Charlotte’s Web” vibe it’s after, with freestyling Kate McKinnon recording more misses than hits as Ferdinand’s goat sidekick.
A better conceived story enhancement is the bee-sting freakout that leads our pacifist hero to be mistaken for a legit raging bull. A pair of gentle picture-book sketches morph into a comedic, village-leveling set piece complete with a china shop gag that’s inevitable yet inspired. Ferdinand’s flowers should smell so fresh.
Directed by Carlos Saldanha. Written by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, and Brad Copeland, based on “The Story of Ferdinand” by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson. Starring John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale. Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 106 minutes. PG (rude humor, action, some thematic elements).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.