Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, September 18, 2015
What’s this, a kids’ movie? Hey, why not…. As long as a movie can be designated as Science Fiction or Horror, now and then I might cover those fun kid flicks that we’re forced to watch with the little ones. Sometimes, they’re actually pretty good!
As is the case this time around. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (2014) is more than good. In fact, I’ll start this review with a risky statement: it’s FROZEN (2013) for boys.
That’s right. This movie is custom made for boys, complete with violence, farts, and the hero saving the day in the end. Watch any little girl watching the tale of Elsa the Snow Queen, and you’ll see how utterly captivated they are. This is rare for girls, who don’t have the absolute-focus gene we boys have with movies. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN (which I’ll refer to as MP&S) has this same effect on boys (your mileage may vary, of course). For a few months this year my wife and I had the pleasure of taking care of a 2-year-old boy named Jacob. He had the attention span of most 2-year-olds, which is pretty limited. Unless this movie was put on. I’ve never seen anyone so rapt by a movie before, or since (barring, perhaps, me). Needless to say, Linda and I also had to watch the movie, in fact about 45 times over the course of three months. Thankfully, it is a funny, clever and downright fun movie.
MP&S got some bad press when it was released, not because it was bad, but because people simply didn’t go to see it. It never recouped its monstrous budget at the box office. I hope it eventually does, via rentals and streaming. They made a few bucks from us, that’s for sure.
If you’re younger than, say, thirty-five, you might not know the original exploits of Mr. Peabody and young Sherman. It was one of the cartoon shorts comprising THE ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE SHOW (1959–1964), Rocky being a flying squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose his lovably dopey friend. Like many of its ilk at the time, the show consisted of multiple cartoons, anchored by Rocky and Bullwinkle’s. Primarily, we got goofy versions of old fairy tales (called, aptly, “Fractured Fairy Tales“) and “Peabody and Sherman.” There might have been others that I no longer remember. The cartoons were all spastically-edited (I’m guessing to retain kids’ attention spans, since the animation was subpar, even for its time), pretty funny and surprisingly intelligent with their humor. “Peabody and Sherman” was my favorite. A genius dog (I think he’s a fox terrier, but have never been certain) and his young human assistant travel to the past to learn lessons from history using a machine called the “Way Back.” When I saw the preview for a movie version finally coming out, I was excited to see it. Granted, I ended up being one of the many who never made it to the theaters to see it, to my loss (would have been awesome in 3D).
The film opens with Mr. Peabody narrating the story of his vast intelligence (he’s not a humble terrier-ish) and how it isolated him from other dogs as a puppy so he had to turn to books and learning instead. In this movie, he’s more than just smart, Peabody is an expert at pretty much everything. It’s a funny and cute opening scene, ending with the introduction of his son, Sherman (and answering the decades-old, and decidedly low-priority, question as to what the relationship was between these two!). A couple of times in the movie the line, “It’s an adoptive relationship,” is used when anyone wonders why the boy’s father is a dog. A later series of flashbacks, to the tune of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” tell the story of how they came to be a family. All these trips into the past using the newly-spelled WABAC Machine, are done to teach Sherman’s history and life lessons.
Of course, every time they do this in the film, they nearly get themselves killed or seriously maimed.
Ty Burrell (Phil from the MODERN FAMILY TV series) has Mr. Peabody’s voice and inflections down pat (no pun intended). Max Charles (young Peter Parker in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, 2012) is the perfect Sherman, voice-wise. The two actors have great timing and chemistry together.
The premise of the film is this: on his first day of school Sherman is picked on by the popular girl of first grade, Penny (Ariel Winter, Alex from the MODERN FAMILY TV series). She calls him a dog, because his dad is a dog. Sherman eventually bites her. In comes a DCF social worker named Mrs. Grunion, who begins efforts to remove Sherman from Mr. Peabody’s home because she never believed a dog should have been able to adopt a boy in the first place. At a dinner party that night to smooth things over with Penny and her parents, a few complications arise at their penthouse apartment (the dog is also fabulously wealthy, did I mention that?), including, but not limited to, unplanned trips to Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy and Ancient Troy, and of course a rip in the space-time continuum.
When I first watched this movie, I did not realize Allison Janney (THE WEST WING TV series and movies like JUNO, 2007), does the voice of Mrs. Grunion. It’s that different from her normal voice. Most of the big-name stars who play characters have altered their voices enough so that you might have a hard time recognizing them (aside from Burrell, whose voice is already quite distinctive), and Patrick Warburton (FAMILY GUY TV series) as the Trojan soldier Agamemnon—Warburton has a cool voice for this type of character anyway, and is quite funny in this role. There are a lot of star names—probably why the budget for MP&S was over-the-top —from the above names, to Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci and even a cameo by Mel Brooks.
Even with this cast, the movie is carried by the talent and good humor of Burrell and Charles as the title characters. Their interplay is non-stop throughout, as father and son geniuses who both never quite realize how much trouble they’re about to get themselves into until they’re almost in over their heads. They get into a lot of trouble, too. The screenplay is quick, funny and, like its predecessor, at times quite intelligent (something for all ages, in other words).
Back to the idea that this is the perfect little boy movie. There is quite a lot of violence, but the stylized kind you get in cartoons where the laws of physics go out the window and the good guy always finds a way out of the predicament. The filmmakers make Mr. Peabody such a genius and expert at everything, little kids watching should never become too frightened. After all, the dog never is. His confidence in his own ability to get them out of deadly peril is so firm, the kiddies can be excited as they watch without breaking down in terrified sobs. There are also plenty of well-timed (and sometimes subtle) fart jokes to send any boy falling over his chair (an example of the more subtle kind, which always makes me laugh: when P&S are running through the sewers of 18th century France escaping revolutionaries who want to chop their heads off, Peabody says, “Sherman, do you smell that?” to which the boy replies, “It wasn’t me, Mr. Peabody.” Maybe it’s just me, but that’s funny.)
There are also plenty of bad puns, though this is deliberate and a requirement. The original cartoon always ended in Peabody giving the moral of the story in the form of a pun. This movie is no exception. In fact, Peabody spends the entire film throwing puns at Sherman, who never quite gets the jokes.
This is an animated film, of course, a smooth blending of true animation with CGI to add depth and a (warped) sense of reality to the scenes. This was released in 3D at the cinema. If it came back to the theaters, even after seeing it on the small screen so many times, I’d probably sneak out to see it. Mr. Peabody and his son Sherman look nearly identical to their original cartoon incarnations, only better. The expressions, especially on Sherman’s face, sometimes say more than the dialogue. And the WABAC, instead of simply a door they step through, is a round ball with wings which soars through wormholes in space time (“Drop your sword and step away from the futuristic orb,” is the line you might remember from the trailer). All in all, it’s very impressive, visually.
Yes, yes, I know it’s a kids’ movie, but it can still have impressive visual effects. Remember, I’ve seen this more times than the original STAR WARS (1977) at this point. I have to love it, or I’ll go mad. Needless to say, the science behind anything you see in MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN is, simply, wrong. All of it. Not a whit will help Junior pass his MCAS tests.
The animation and voice acting is top-notch, but I should give director Bob Minkoff (THE LION KING, 1994, and STUART LITTLE, 1999) credit for the overall experience, including the pacing, which is non-stop, and overall warm feel of the film. Honestly, when it comes to animation, I’m a little fuzzy what the director actually does. He/she works with the animation team and the editors more often, I suppose, since there aren’t any “location” shots.
If you’re a fan of the original cartoon, this movie will delight you. I promise. Watch it, even if you’re over forty (which you probably are if you’re a fan of the original). It’s a modernized, but wonderful homage to a now-obscure entertainment morsel. If you’ve never heard of the cartoon, doesn’t matter. You’ll love it just the same.
Unless you’re a girl. Even with little Penny in most of the scenes, FROZEN will probably still be more your cup of tea. But if there’s a little boy in your home, or the little boy inside you needs some entertaining, give this fun, family movie a watch.
I give it 4 knives. If you’re a boy.
(PS: I labored for a couple of hours trying to find a cute pun to end this review with. No luck. Watch the movie, there’ll be plenty in there to deal with. If you think of one I could’ve used, let me know in the comments section.)
© Copyright 2015 by Daniel G. Keohane