REVIEW: Mr. Peabody & Sherman [2014]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: March 7th, 2014 (USA)
Studio: DreamWorks Animation / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Rob Minkoff
Writer(s): Craig Wright / Jay Ward (based on the series produced by) /
Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon (additional dialogue) /
Michael McCullers (additional screenplay material)

“But that’s not fair! All my friends are fighting the Trojan War!”

It’s been a decade in the making but director Rob Minkoff has finally brought Mr. Peabody and Sherman to theaters. He tried with Sony in 2003, got the ball rolling again with Dreamworks in 2006, and saw the latter studio’s purchase of the Classic Media library in 2012 as the clincher to guarantee it’d come to fruition. With characters known from segments of the 60s television series “The Bullwinkle Show”, they’re virtually a brand new property for today’s youth considering I have less than a passing recognition from growing up in the 80s. The comedic conceit behind them is solid, however, as well as educational in a cockeyed sort of way. And with original producer Jay Ward’s daughter Tiffany vigilant to ensure the piece “retains its integrity”, the film’s success is merited rather than manufactured.

To be honest, I was worried after finding out guns for hire Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant were brought in to punch-up screenwriter Craig Wright’s dialogue. Don’t get me wrong, I love “The State” and find the duo hilarious in “Reno 911!”, but it’s hard not to relate them with Hollywood blockbuster fart jokes otherwise. Perhaps their hiring was simply to ensure the intentionally bad puns littered throughout Mr. Peabody’s (Ty Burrell) oration were laughable because the whole is surprisingly enjoyable in a quasi-intellectual way. That’s not to say it isn’t replete with time travel plot holes or that it doesn’t make light of historical fact by turning Marie Antoinette into a cake-loving glutton, but the humor doesn’t end up alienating a demographic by being too heady or too juvenile either.

Wright’s adaptation of Ted Key’s Nobel laureate canine and his adopted son Sherman (Max Charles) instead toes the line while sticking close to a message of love, friendship, and empathy. The obvious flipping of the theme “Every boy should have a dog” accompanies adolescent struggles like bullying and more adult, political hot-button issues like equal rights for American citizens under the law (Allison Janney’s villainous Ms. Grunion threatens to take Sherman from his guardian in direct opposition to a judge’s ruling Mr. Peabody received years previous). While those aspects are thinly veiled at best, however, the film’s main appeal is its willingness to teach history in a memorably skewed way by traveling back in time to meet the likes of George Washington, Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), and King Tut (Zach Callison).

Even though Peabody excelled at everything life offered a smugly smart Renaissance man such as he, nothing could prepare him for the task of raising a child. In order to make the experience as successful as possible, he invented the WABAC machine so Sherman could literally live history rather than read it. The process inevitably turned the boy into an oblivious know-it-all who unsurprisingly makes an enemy out of classmate Penny Paterson (Ariel Winter). She in turn mocks his “adoptive relationship” by ordering him to fetch and his vengeful bite of retribution introduces Ms. Grunion to the fold. Peabody hopes inviting Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for dinner will diffuse the situation until Sherman does the only thing he can think will make Penny like him—take her to ancient Egypt.

What follows is a fun adventure through time as Mr. Peabody and Sherman reclaim Penny, take a couple of detours, and eventually return to the present with a rift of time and space risking to obliterate our world. We learn about da Vinci’s many talents, what it means to marry a pharaoh, and a Cliff Notes version of both the Reign of Terror and Trojan War. There are goofy interpretations of legends like Odysseus (Tom McGrath) being rendered as a dullard and Mona Lisa (Lake Bell) an ornery subject who’s not easily made to laugh and explicit examples of danger via wars, beheadings, and vengeful Gods. Luckily for Sherman and Penny their genius of a guide cannot help himself from calculating death-defying escapes as though physics and a working knowledge of history are all anyone needs for immortality.

Just as the children need his analytics, however, so too does Mr. Peabody need their ability to show him his humanity—yes, I know he’s a dog. There are many cute examples of this subversion of species wherein Peabody constantly proves his worth as a member of civilized society thanks to a laundry list of doctorates and vocations. His quick-thinking is all that stands between Sherman being sent back into orphanage and Penny being lost forever in time, two things someone like Grunion could argue never would have happened had he not crossed paths with them in the first place. This is an intentional bit of chicken and egg conundruming, though, so that those in the audience can see what it means to take responsibility for one’s actions and never give up on those they love.

One of the coolest things I came across in my “Peabody’s Improbable History” research sadly didn’t come through completely. The 1960s Peabody discovered his inability to interact with the past and therefore made adjustments to turn the WABAC into a “should-have-been-machine” that allowed history to be amended spawning a litany of anachronisms reflected in their subsequent adventures. A funny montage at the film’s end does show this potential so any sequels in the pipeline could very well include wacky alterations. Doing so will obviously ruin any chance the series had of being more educational than surface details, but that shouldn’t be a problem. If anything Mr. Peabody and Sherman plants legendary names into kids’ heads so they’ll spark an interest to learn more themselves and that’s a worthy endeavor on its own.

[1] Mr. Peabody (Ty Burell), Penny (Ariel Winter) and Sherman (Max Charles) enjoy the benefits of time travel. Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions. © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions.
[2] Sherman (Max Charles) asks a skeptical Mr. Peabody (Ty Burell) if he can take control of the WABAC. Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions. © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions.
[3] Penny (Ariel Winter) and Sherman (Max Charles) travel back in time to Venice, Italy and test out Leonardo DaVinci´s flying machine. Photo: DreamWorks Animation © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions. © 2013 DreamWorks Animation LLC. All Rights Reserved. MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN TM AND © Ward Productions.

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