Reel Geek Girl: Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Ty Burrell, Max Charles
with Patrick Warburton Stanley Tucci and Stephen Colbert
PG 92 Minutes
When it comes to expanding animated shorts from the 60s and 70s into full-fledged movies, there’s a right way to do it, and there’s a very, very wrong way to do it. The live action Bullwinkle movie was… let’s just call it unfortunate. Likewise Boris and Natasha. The Flintstones. Dudley Do-Right was saved, in my honest opinion, mostly by having Brendan Fraser and Alfred Molina involved. Dr. Seuss is likely still spinning in his grave from Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (which you will notice does not have the name attached; it was so bad the Seuss estate demanded the name removed). So there’s mediocre, and there’s cringingly, wincingly, nightmarishly bad.
Amazingly, however, Hollywood is occasionally capable of learning from its mistakes. Blue Sky did it right with Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, and I am happy to say DreamWorks has followed the right example with Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The film has enough of the original Jay Ward and Ted Key framework from the old “Peabody’s Improbable History” shorts as seen in Rocky and Bullwinkle to give parents and grandparents a nostalgic twinkle. Peabody remains a know-it-all genius, but not as hard-edged as his original incaranation. In the film, he acts mostly of a genuine desire to teach his boy Sherman all that he possibly can; and he still has a weakness for clever puns.
Screenwriter Craig Wright took what was only the bare bones of a boy and his dog story and built a surprisingly sweet and funny movie with enough typical 21st century pop culture references and potty humor thrown in to attract modern audiences. The commonality between Mr. Peabody and Sherman is that they were both left alone as babies with no one to care for them. Peabody, who has far better than human intelligence, immediately makes a connection with the foundling, and that informs his fatherly affection for Sherman. It should be noted that film Peabody is much gentler than the original, who was a satirical reversal of the “dog and master” dynamic, and treated Sherman not as a son but as a not-too-bright pet.
Sherman is pretty much your ordinary, geeky, small boy. The giant glasses he wears give him a visual callback to his adoptive father, so it’s easy to see them as family despite the obvious species jump.
I was not expecting much from the story, but the plot got its emotional hooks in early. We see Peabody (who is such a genius he recognizes there’s a Fourth Wall) and Sherman bonding before Sherman’s first day of school … which doesn’t go well, because although Sherman is enthusiastic and happy to participate, his showing up of Penny Peterson makes her decide he’s an instant enemy. Like many geeks, he’s not emotionally aware; he doesn’t realize that she is trying to hurt him until she tosses his lunch, calls him a dog, and commands him to go fetch. Sherman’s wounded pride and insult at being called a dog (despite his father being the smartest dog in the world) causes one thing to lead to another. The principal’s office. Then the social worker, who seems to have it in for Peabody for no other reason than he is a dog who walks on two legs and is smarter than everyone in the room. She swears to investigate their home and take Sherman from Peabody if she finds anything amiss. The principal is a milquetoast of a man who attempts to stand up to her, but has no real chance.
Peabody is taken aback when Sherman explains what Penny did to set Sherman off. He’s also worried that nasty Ms. Grunion (Alison Janney) who hearkens to Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter in a lot of ways, will take his adopted son from him. But after a genuinely precious montage featuring baby Sherman and various historical figures including Moses, Beethoven, and Gandhi, Peabody’s resolve to win the right to keep his child is steeled.
The genius dog’s plan involves inviting Penny and her parents over for dinner so Penny and Sherman can work out their differences, make up, and become friends, and thence to show “we’re all friends” to Grunion when she arrives for her investigation. Of course, Sherman, having all this sprung on him with no notice, has no interest in making up with Penny, and does a terrible job at it until Penny demands to know how he knows so much about history. Caught on his back foot, Sherman blabs the existence of the Wayback, and on Penny’s urging, they go back in time so she can become a literal princess by marrying King Tut. Why do Egyptians speak English? It’s a cartoon, don’t worry about it. Same is true for Italians and French and Greek speaking English. If the dog is smart enough to build a time machine, he’s smart enough to build translation conventions into the wardrobe generating device that lets him and the kids dress appropriate to the timestream. Let it go.
The rest of the film is Sherman having to own up to what he’s done, Peabody having to slip away from Penny’s unknowing parents, and set things back to rights. Spoiler alert: that doesn’t happen so much, but along the way, Penny learns to be less of a bully and more of a decent person, Sherman learns not to be ashamed of being a dog, and Peabody learns that it’s okay to show genuine fatherly affection. Yes, okay, I got misty eyed at parts. Shut up. You will too.
The animation is up to DreamWorks’ standard. It’s so full of detail that it’s tempting to look at other things than the action on screen. The sequences that animate to show us Peabody’s literal and painstakingly diagrammed line of thought are beautiful. Even funnier are the childish crayon squiggles that show the diagram of Sherman attempting to do the same. There’s also a decent amount of Indiana Jones-esque action in between the moments of slapstick and hilarity.
The climax is typical for time-travel fare. The time-space continuum is all messed up from various things done by Sherman, Penny, and Peabody in the course of the movie’s events, and it pulls out all the stops, showing landmarks and historical events falling from the sky and into the streets of New York with increasing speed and fury.
Of course there’s a happy ending, and the credits are a delight to behold. There are a few Easter eggs for those who remember the original shorts from TV of their childhood.
Patrick Warburton plays to type as the big, dumb musclehead. Stanley Tucci as Leonardo DaVinci, an old friend of Peabody’s, is inspired and helps Peabody with the emotional core of his relationship with Sherman.
The film wasn’t perfect; there were a few problematic elements.
Sherman and Penny’s private academy had children of different ethnicities, and at least one on-screen disabled kid, who had lines. I braced myself for the worst, but Egypt was portrayed with an impressive array of different skin tones, none of which were just plain peach. New York City was also portrayed with a respectable amount of ethnic and gender diversity, even including its police force.
Penny’s parents were mostly comic relief. Penny’s dad was determined to dislike Peabody no matter what; how Peabody finally wins him over is one of the funniest moments the film offers. Penny’s mother, on the other hand, comes across as little more than a dumb blonde trophy wife. She giggles and has few lines beyond “Yummy!” but is obviously trying to get her husband to warm up to Peabody.
Back in Colonial America, George Washington impresses the ladies by showing off his face on the one dollar bill of the future. Benjamin Franklin points out that he’s on the $100, and the women abandon old George. So yay, women can count. Boo, women are gold-diggers.
The two villains of the piece were both female. Penny’s bullying of Sherman was painful to watch, and her sneering, spoiled brattiness made me happy to hate her. She grew out of it as the story went on. In fact, her opinion on marriage in a throwaway line went a long way to making me wonder what her family life must be like. Grunion’s redemption came differently, and it was one of those damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t moments. One of the people our heroes meet in the past takes one look at her and it’s love at first sight. When the timestream is set to rights and the historical figures are drawn back to their proper time, he grabs her, kicking and screaming, to go back with him. But the epilogue shows us she is happy where she ended up. So problematic element the first: kidnapping a woman for love, and the implications thereof. Problematic element the second: Grunion was only such a hateful bully because all she needed was to find a man.
4.5/5 – kids may find some parts a little scary, and we saw it in regular definiton rather than 3D. I know the gimmick is pretty much here to stay, but I don’t have to like it.
Add that half a star back if all the potty humor and poo jokes don’t bother you. I loathe this trend in comedy and wish it would go. Take away half a star if you’re pedantic enough to hate anachronistic humor (you’ll know the scene when you see it). Take away a full star if you’re not old enough to appreciate the touches only a fan of the original will spot.