The reluctant hero is one of the great staples of cinema, if not literature itself. Perhaps the most enduring variant of this archetype is the man or woman who is actually extremely powerful. The great warrior who has foresworn violence. (See “The Quiet Man,” “Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon,” even Atticus in “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Someone with strength, who is determined to remain a pacifist...
At least until the climax of the story.
In virtually all these stories, such a hero must be forced to use force. Everything the hero holds dear must be challenged, in order to build the blood lust of the audience, to stoke our collective need for vengeance. The hero therefore gets to express both our civility (at first) and our righteous fury (at last). Through this act of catharsis, the concept of justified violence has been imbedded into our collective unconscious since the dawn of human storytelling.
Enter, a cute animated Bull named Ferdinand, courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Gentle spoiler alert: for those unfamiliar with the 1936 book that this movie is based on, or this film, this essay talks about the ending. Reading on is only for the brave.
I saw Ferdinand recently with my God-daughters, and found the movie a solid representation of visual moviemaking. I confess, as a Vegan, I was perhaps more inclined than others to enjoy a film that isn’t exactly complimentary about bull-fighting. But it wasn’t the anti-bull-killing message that stood out for me.
Children’s movies are relevant to our society because they define the rules for us. Sometimes, we’re not even conscious of the rules these movies establish, but they affect us for the rest of our lives, anyway. When similar experiences appear, we measure our own choices, even as adults, up against the crossroads established in those films. We unconsciously obey rules we learned in dark, popcorn-strewn theaters, with our blissfully unaware parents probably asleep in their seats nearby.
Historically, virtually every movie I know of, teaches us that at some point, a hero has to fight. Regardless of gender, plight, or circumstances.
The architecture of building a hero’s desire in the movie Ferdinand is scaffolded nicely. Ferdinand, a young bull, prefers smelling flowers to fighting. But then, he grows to exceptional size and strength. In a movie, suggesting that a character is extra strong or capable is exactly like showing a gun being loaded. All the audience’s expectations are now built around the idea of that gun going off. We are eager for it. We are uncomfortable without it. We want the satisfaction of seeing the tension that has been carefully established, pay off in a wondrous moment of complete abandon and gratifying resolution.
Likewise, the architecture of antagonists - the bad guys — is well structured in Ferdinand. The bad guys are upsettingly bad. The system that Ferdinand is up against is distasteful and horrible. Far more than we can handle as an audience, comes bearing down on a strong bull that we have already learned to love.
In short, by the end of the film - the audience is primed for the ultimate cleansing power of blood and violence - much as an audience is primed in an actual bull fight. We want Ferdinand to wreak havoc on his enemies, who are our enemies! We want him to stand up for what is right! We want this reserved, strong bull to prove to us that Might Makes Right!
But he doesn’t.
Ferdinand manages to retain (to borrow a different Spanish convention) his Quixotic innocence and purity, through to the end. I won’t explain how he and the filmmakers pull that off, but I hope you’ll see the film and find out.
Ultimately, those who do get an opportunity rarely seen before in cinematic and literary history - to experience a different resolution, equally satisfying, where the hero retains his values throughout the entirety of the story. And by doing so - changes others.
It’s a new rule. It’s actually, to be fair - a Christian rule. And I say that not because Ferdinand dies or doesn’t die (just see the movie) but because the ultimate message of this flower-sniffing Bull is that we can rise to our challenges without taking actions that lower our principles.
In that sense, it is an amazing statement. A statement sorely needed in a time where many perceive the leader of the free world to be a bully. Perhaps, to help counterbalance our current political state of affairs, we need to see at least one bull who refuses to dominate others, even though he can.
I should point out that credit is due to the screenwriters and execs who no doubt had the tempting opportunity to rewrite the story of Ferdinand into the typical constraints of the reluctant hero. But these brave filmmakers stood up to a cannon of literature, and said - no, there can be another way.
That, to me, is leadership. And I’m hopeful that their inspiration will be joined, if not by the countless children (and adults) who see this film, but by writers and leaders of thought around the globe.