Banned under Franco, Ferdinand the peace-loving bull returns to big screen

First a book, then a Disney short, timeless classic is back again as a 20th Century Fox movie

A still shot from the new Ferdinand movie.
A still shot from the new Ferdinand movie.20th Century Fox
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La historia del toro antitaurino que censuró la dictadura se convierte en película

The Story of Ferdinand is the best-known work by US author Munro Leaf. Published in 1936 with illustrations by Robert Lawson, it tells the story of a Spanish bull that does not like to fight. Ever since he was a youngster, he would much rather smell the flowers. The years pass as he enjoys life in his meadow, under a cork tree – until the day when, against his wishes, he is taken to Las Ventas bullring in Madrid. In short, Ferdinand was an anti-bullfighting bull.

The story, which was made into an Oscar-winning short film by Disney in 1938, has been picked up by 20th Century Fox, which will release Ferdinand on December 22.

Both the book and the Disney short were banned at the time in Spain, which was under the rule of the dictator Francisco Franco. Like this article in Illustration Chronicles explains, the regime considered it “pacifist propaganda.”

A still shot from ‘Ferdinand’ showing the bridge in Ronda.
A still shot from ‘Ferdinand’ showing the bridge in Ronda.Ferdinand

The book sold well and quickly gained global popularity. It was published nine months after the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and the fact that the story took place in Spain awarded it a great deal of symbolism.

The ban was not lifted until 1975, the year that Franco died. “Yes, it was propaganda, but in favor of laughter,” admitted the author.

It was banned in Germany under Hitler, where the story was called “democratic and degenerate propaganda.” But prominent figures who backed the book included George Wells, Gandhi and Ernest Hemingway.

Cover of the original book.
Cover of the original book.

On March 28, the US distributor published the Spanish-language trailer on its YouTube account. In it, Ferdinand strolls down the streets of Ronda, Malaga, avoiding confrontation and smelling the flowers.

“It seems like from the moment you’re born, people think they’ve got you all figured out, based on how you look, how you talk, where you’re from...but it’s not that simple,” begins the trailer, which ends with the slogan “You will bullieve.”

The message behind the movie, just like the book, is simple enough: better to smell the flowers than to fight. And there is a second message: “Don’t judge a bull by its horns.”

In an article published on The The Huffington Post, psychologist Lori Day describes the story as “the first children’s book on gender non-conformity.”

The film director is Carlos Saldanha, a Brazilian who also participated in Ice Age (2002) and Río (2011), two movies in which animals also did not fit into their expected roles.

In the book, the Andalusian town of Ronda is recognizable through its iconic bridge, the Puente Nuevo. In the trailer, it is also prominent. The Malaga municipality has long had a special relationship with the bulls, and its ring, visited each year by thousands of tourists, is one of Spain’s oldest.

English version by Susana Urra.


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