Although the young bull with a giant heart got shrouded by lightsaber battles and the Force, “Ferdinand,” based on a 1936 children’s book, contains thought-provoking messages about living life we should all take to heart.
“Ferdinand” tells the story of a Spanish bull who grows up with some pretty clear expectations for his future: He is supposed to fight a matador to the death. As a child, his friends believe that the greatest glory they can achieve will be triumph in the ring, but Ferdinand isn’t so sure. His father died in the ring, and he isn’t inclined to violence anyway — he’s instead preoccupied with flowers. This life of the bull just doesn’t seem to be for him.
So one night, Ferdinand escapes and discovers a family that raises him outside of the expectations of the ring. Left to his own devices, Ferdinand eats, rests, plays and sits among the flowers, content to live far from the training center of his youth.
Until, through a series of mishaps, he finds his way back there, and once again he is expected to fight, but this doesn’t change Ferdinand’s mind. Even though all the young bulls around him want to be in the ring, Ferdinand never sways from his belief that there has to be another way for a bull to live that doesn’t involve violence.
What stands out about the film “Ferdinand” to me is that this story about a bull in Spain is eerily reminiscent of the expectations children and adults face every day. We each encounter other people who want to tell us what our role in society ought to be, and while some of these suggestions offer structure and a sense of meaning, they can also be stifling. They can keep us from questioning whether these expectations are actually helpful in shaping how we live.
Consider a bunch of 13-year old boys, for example. They are playing on a playground with a sign that says, “For kids up to age 10 only.” Instead of sliding down the slide, they climb up it and over it, walking across the top of the monkey bars and then jumping 10 feet to the ground as small children run around them. One of them comes dangerously close to crushing a 3-year-old. They yell loudly and make another toddler cry.
One mother says, “Their behavior seems dangerous.”
Another responds, “Well, boys will be boys,” and nobody says anything else. The boys continue to break the rules and the toddlers continue to be scared until eventually, they all ask to leave the playground.
The phrase “boys will be boys” is one of the human equivalents of the assumption that Ferdinand will surely fight the bull. The idea that girls will necessarily love pink or that personal wealth corresponds to personal worth are others. Some never think twice about these assumptions, and that’s not always a good thing.
In the case of “boys will be boys,” parents who never consider whether it’s actually true that boys are prone to rowdiness and violence may excuse boys who punch their siblings, jump all over the furniture or make the playground dangerous for smaller children, stating that because they are boys and this kind of behavior is just in their nature — it’s just the way they are.
Except, as many parents know, it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes a little bit of guidance can make a child, boy or girl, behave in healthier ways. But that change doesn’t happen without a Ferdinand who asks some tough questions.
“Ferdinand” initially appears to be a story about a peaceful bull, but it is also a story about the kind of transformation that can happen when someone is willing to think outside the box, ask difficult questions and be willing to do what is right instead of what is easy. It’s about the importance of asking whether the dominant view is the correct view. It’s about the power of creative thinking. This doesn’t necessarily mean thinking so creatively that we discard every tradition we have. After all, tradition oftentimes has wisdom and teaches us timeless truths. But it does mean that there is value in being willing to ask difficult questions about assumptions that aren’t serving us or our world in a positive way.
“Ferdinand” may at first glance appear to be a story about animals, but its message remains deeply relevant to us humans. Like this bull, it pays to question assumptions that cause harm or pain, and it is worth the effort to find a new, creative way to live. In the case of Ferdinand, being willing to stand up for beliefs that weren’t the dominant ones literally saved the bull’s life. Perhaps it can save ours as well.