March 5, 2014

Review: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' Go Way Back



Based on the beloved Peabody's Improbable History series of cartoon segments from The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, this 3D CGI animated Dreamworks Animation adaption of Jay Ward's classic characters expands and brings to life (for better and worse) the story of a brainiac time travelling dog and his boy sidekick. Mr. Peabody & Sherman gives the premise a more conventionally rendered vision of the quirky cartoon wrapped in observational history lessons with a healthy dose of nerdy humour.

Ty Burrell brings a more playful know-it-all tone to Mr. Peabody the dog rather than the snooty professorial straight man vibe of the original. The unusual partnership is explained here with a touching yet odd story of a genius dog adopting an abandoned child as a kick off to their intellectual adventures. I didn't much care for the shoehorned conflict of a stereotypically vile child services counsellor (Ms. Grunion, voiced by Allison Janey) trying to take remove Sherman from Mr. Peabody's custody. Also inserted into the adventures is Penny (Ariel Winter) as a foil and entry for the audience into the strange adventures. She's predictably nasty and dour before warming up and being a more sympathetic addition to the duo.

Craig Wright's script is full of competing and contrasting elements trying to balance a bizarre absurdist time travelling premise with light adventure while stripping away Peabody's usual history book like narration. Expanded from short vignettes, which lacked much narrative, the film explores a rather formulaic dramatic emotional arc and journey of these characters where we are accustomed to their more usual straightforward, matter of fact antics. This makes for a hit or miss narrative never quite reaching a suitable cohesiveness.

Strangely enough, the film feels far more aimed at adults, despite being very kiddy in tone, with more than a few perfunctory historical references and riffs on cultural references. This is sometimes clumsily wrapped into a story of family and acceptance to teach kids a lesson. Gone is the more obtuse, historical fact telling tone of the cartoon shorts. The film is all heart and less about a fantastical history lesson. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) brings too much sentimentally and convention (culminating in a baby themed montage throughout history set to a sappy cover of John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy") to the adaption, dwarfing the snarky charm with a more breezy quality.

Although the film is fairly well put together and checks off most of the hallmarks of family adventure fun, Mr. Peabody & Sherman lacks a certain substance to latch onto. The father/son conflict of teaching and learning make sense but never feels quite so satisfying as the surrealist charm of the original. While taking Peabody's Improbable History far too literal in its explanation of its goofy premise, it goes so far past the idea of revisiting history in a popular context to repackage it as an altogether enjoyable yet uninspired synthesis of cultural elements.


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