“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring (the voice talents of): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Patrick Warburton
Written by: Craig Wright, based on the animated TV short ‘Peabody’s Improbable History’ created by Ted Key and produced by Jay Ward
Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Those south of 30 may not recall the “Rocky and His Friends” or “The Bullwinkle Show” cartoons, created in the 1950s and shown via syndication in the 1980s. Attached to those shows were segments entitled “Peabody’s Improbable History”, which were neat, albeit corny little entries focused around the world’s smartest individual, Mr. Peabody. He just happens to be a beagle, who happens to have an adopted son, Sherman. I remember enjoying the show, more so than the adventures of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose, for it focused on science (specifically time travel) and history, and had something to say. They visited a variety of historical figures, breathing life into the people I only read about in class.
Despite how neat it was, I was surprised to see that this lesser-known property had the traction to become a major motion picture, for it was something I had forgotten over time. Thankfully “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a flick worthy of everyone’s attention, and worthy of entering the stream of public conscience again. It isn’t content to simply be a hyper children’s film, but also isn’t so highbrow as to distance itself from the little ones. In other words, it’s rather satisfying, excellently rendered family film that gives ‘smarts’ a palatable voice in a genre that generally excludes them.
Mr. Peabody (Burrell) can pretty much do it all. He’s a scientist, explorer, inventor, painter, photographer, athlete, chef, etc. Like other high achievers though, he’s missing something. That’s where Sherman comes in. Mr. Peabody adopts him (which differs from the original show, where Sherman was his pet), as he sees much of himself in the young boy. Luckily, the film acknowledges the species difference, and gracefully allows the explanation to work within the framework of the plot. Mr. Peabody is not so graceful at expressing his feelings, for when Sherman tells his adoptive father he loves him, he’s met with a neutral “I have a very fond regard for you, too”. As you can imagine, that is revisited later in the film.
This is an interesting family dynamic- not so much because he’s a dog, but because it’s non-traditional. Even if it was by accident, the script wonderfully allows for their small, non-traditional family to have the same kind of ups and downs as a ‘regular’ family. It may be a stretch to draw the conclusion that children who see this will remember this and become more accepting of alternative family situations, but it’s pleasant to see a children’s film open to different ideas.
Interestingly, the same family situation I referenced does drive the plot. Sherman is starting school, and in the process he gets picked on for being the son of a ‘dog’. Specifically, a girl named Penny decides he is ripe for the bullying, and picks on him until he actually bites her. That’ll earn a trip to the principal’s office, and parents, teachers, case workers, etc will get involved. Interestingly, the film doesn’t seem interested in the justice or injustice of the situation- after all, the girl did provoke him, but I digress. Mr. Peabody does what he can to mend the situation by having Penny and her parents over for dinner. He’s confident that a few drinks and pleasant conversation can wash the situation under the table.
As is wont to occasionally happen, the children explore while the adults chat, which leads Sherman to mistakenly show Penny the “WABAC”. The cleverly-acronymed WABAC is, you guessed it, a time machine (looking more like the ‘red matter’ from “Star Trek” than a time-travel device). Sherman and Penny get themselves into hot water, which requires some clever work on Mr. Peabody’s part to set things straight. The resulting adventure through time is crisp, funny, and reverent to the original material. Director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”) once again proves himself a very capable craftsman of animated features, managing to give us comedic and beautiful scenes interlaced with a needed intelligence.
The film isn’t without its’ flaws, however. For as much as I praised it earlier for allowing smart to be cool, the filmmakers made the choice not to explain how Mr. Peabody figures out time travel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the scientific inaccuracies, for this film has not heard of the ‘butterfly effect’. Clearly Mr. Peabody’s actions would have drastic effects on the present, but it’s entirely possible that I’m giving this too much thought. It’s an unfortunate choice, for if it trusts kids to enjoy being confident with their intelligence, it should have trusted them to enjoy being challenged as well. These criticisms don’t hurt the film on the whole, however. It’s enjoyable for everyone, and by being picky, I’m criticizing the film’s flip-flop on whether or not to trust us with ‘smart’ stuff. That’s hardly a reason not to enjoy a tale of a beagle and his pet, I mean son.