Mr. Peabody & Sherman is the big-screen reboot of the “Peabody’s Improbable History” shorts included as part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle animated shows of the 1950s and ’60s. Keeping with the same origin story, Mr. Peabody is a beagle who happens to be the smartest being alive. A business magnate, inventor, scientist, Nobel Laureate, gourmand and Olympic athlete, Peabody can accomplish virtually any task – including a landmark court case that allowed him (a dog) to adopt his son Sherman (a human boy). The happy pair fill their days using Peabody’s WABAC time machine in order to go on fun adventures throughout history – a seemingly ideal life for a young boy to grow up in.
However, when Sherman starts school he quickly finds that his unique (but awesome) life makes him a target for bullying and social ridicule. One girl in particular, Penny, pushes Sherman so far that he lashes out in a way that forces the school and child services to intervene. Facing serious challenge to his claims as an adoptive parent, Peabody decides to invite Penny, her parents and militant social worker Ms. Grunion over for a fine cuisine dinner – in order to cool hot tempers. But when Penny’s instigation leads to her and Sherman taking the WABAC for an ill-fated joy ride, Mr. Peabody winds up in a fiasco that could threaten the entire space-time continuum.
Director Rob Minkoff has a list of hit animated works under his belt (The Lion King, Roger Rabbit shorts like “Tummy Trouble” and “Roller Coaster Rabbit”) – but his more recent work with live-action has been less impressive (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Haunted Mansion). Returning to animation for the first time in years, Minkoff transforms the thin material of the Peabody shorts into a legitimate animated feature about family bonds and growing up, with historical trivia thrown in for good measure. While that is a feat in and of itself, ultimately the film doesn’t measure up to the level of Dreamworks Animation’s best works (new classics like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon); instead, Peabody & Sherman falls somewhere alongside the studio’s earnest but otherwise average second-tier features (like Kung Fu Panda 2).
Visually speaking, Peabody & Sherman is solid with a lot of impressive flourishes to touch it up. The animation style is comparable to Pixar’s The Incredibles - but that close resemblance is not exactly a compliment, since the character models for Peabody & Sherman are coming to the screen a decade after Mr. Incredible and his family. That’s all to say: while sufficient, Peabody & Sherman‘s animation style and character models aren’t exactly stunning.
Beyond that stylistic criticism, Minkoff knows how to have fun with the material and is smart about using the film screen as canvas for great visual gags, slapstick comedy and fun pokes at both contemporary life and history, which will appeal to both kids and adults. The sci-fi aspects of the film (like Peabody’s WABAC and the time travel visuals) are a bit more spectacular to behold – as are the action/chase sequences. Those stronger elements (the action and sci-fi) are what ultimately justify the film’s 3D format, as those moments are genuinely enhanced by the immersive dimensional composition.
The script by TV writer Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money) is unexpectedly bold in its metaphoric implications. The story about Peabody’s custody of Sherman directly echoes issues about “proper” family structure and adoption rights in the modern era – topics which are still quite controversial and sensitive. Of course, those messages are more for adults to recognize and kids to unconsciously mull over, while more familiar (read: cliched) ideas about kids growing up and parents letting go rush in to provide tried-and-true heart as balance against all the pontification. As an added bonus: the historical examples and exposition might even teach kids a thing or two!
Reno 911! and Night at the Museum masterminds Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon provided “additional dialogue” for the film – and one has to wonder just how much of the sharp verbal wit and barrage of Peabody-brand puns came from them. The contrast between Garant and Lennon’s witty family-friendly humor and Wright’s more serious narrative and themes often makes Mr. Peabody feel like an odd pastiche of styles; however, the film manages to surf those choppy waters pretty smoothly most of the time, achieving the coveted status of an animated film that offers both kiddie fun and adult enjoyment – though neither aspect leaves all that much of an impression, once the movie is over.
Modern Family star Ty Burrell’s Phil Dunphy persona translates pretty well to a sophisticated animated dog like Mr. Peabody. In this adaptation, the character is more attentive and caring (instead of the cold intellectual depicted in the original animated shorts) and Burrell’s voice has both the energy and sensitivity to bring a dynamic and three-dimensional animated character to life. (Also, there are few actors working right now who can sell a cheesy pun better than Ty Burrell; he sounds so earnest each time he gets to crack one off, you almost feel heartless if you don’t at least chuckle.)
Child actor Max Charles (Amazing Spider-Man, The Neighbors) is a good pick for Sherman. Charles (who has voiced a number of animated characters on Family Guy) is a prime match for both the energy and sensitivity of Burrell’s voice; when the more serious moments arrive, Charles delivers convincing angst and emotion with his words – not easy for one so young. (Surprisingly enough, it is Burrell’s Modern Family co-star (and TV daughter) Ariel Winter whose voice doesn’t quite elevate Penny above being a bratty caricature.) Other voice cameos you’ll likely be straining an ear to place include Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Dennis Haysbert, Allison Janney, Stephen Tobolowsky, Lake Bell, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton (of course!) and even a quick cameo by none other than Mel Brooks.
In the end, Mr. Peabody & Sherman will be fun (even slightly educational) for kids, and mostly passable for adults (if you don’t get hung up on some of the more hot-button issues laced into the story). Not Dreamworks’ best, but still better than a lot of animated features that other (non-Pixar) studios try to put into theaters. Peabody has a heart and mind, but compared to something like The LEGO Movie, this is definitely a second-tier contender for your dollar.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is now playing in theaters. It is 92 minutes long and Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.
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