When Dreamworks first announced their plans to turn Peabody’s Improbable History (a short which ran during The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show featuring Mr. Peabody and his boy companion, Sherman) into a full length animated film, I was a little worried that my once beloved cartoon (I used to wake up at three in the morning in order to catch reruns of it on Cartoon Network) would be run through the standard generic animated blender everything seems to go through now. Little did I know I would be so, so wrong.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is remarkably smart, adorable, educational, referential, heartwarming, effervescent, hilarious, and even a little rude. But most of all, it’s improbably entertaining.
Which is exactly the way I like my Peabody.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Director: Rob Minkoff
Release Date: March 7, 2014
Based on the Peabody’s Improbable History shorts, Peabody & Sherman follows Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrrell), a genius dog who’s raising his adopted son Sherman (Max Charles). After a confrontation during Sherman’s first day at school, Peabody invites Penny (Ariel Winter) and her parents over in order to resolve things before a social worker takes Sherman away. When Penny and Sherman use the WABAC (a time machine Peabody had invented) and get stuck in time shenanigans, it’s up to Mr. Peabody to save them both.
As you can most likely gauge from the synopsis, Peabody has a slight tinge of darkness to it. But that’s not a negative trait at all. I was initially worried that Peabody‘s new age translation meant a “dark” story, but that’s wonderfully not the case. And changing the original cartoon by defining Peabody and Sherman’s relationship (making them father and son) actually makes the duo more endearing and relatable. There are plenty of interactions between the two that are insanely bubbly and fun. In fact, there’s one scene where they’re traveling on Mr. Peabody’s scooter (that’s called back later in the film) that’s one of the most charming things I’ve seen this year. The “YES, MR. PEABODY!” got to me every time. The source of the humor is refreshingly strong for a children’s film, too.
While most children’s films find it fit to squeeze in as many fart jokes and low hanging fruit as they possibly can, Peabody does its best to promote a smarter, tighter kids narrative. Taking inspiration from the original shorts, Peabody weaves in plenty of notable historical facts and figures within its little adventure. Don’t expect a major history lesson for each time period as they’re spun through relatively quickly, but it’s nice to hear Peabody teaching Sherman a thing or two about King Tut, Marie Antoinette, and even the Trojan War. But even if you’re bored with historical facts, there are plenty of jokes stemming from Mr. Peabody & Sherman‘s attention to dialogue.
The way characters refer to one another always seems to fall apart in children’s movies. Most of the time you get childish antics (in order to make the film digestible enough for kids) clumsily fused with adult humor as to not bore the parents dragged to it. But Mr. Peabody & Sherman flips the script. Instead of catering to children, it caters to the parents who a nostalgic property like Peabody would most associate with. This flip works wonders as Peabody doesn’t belittle itself or the audience in order to entertain. It all just sort of works. For example, there’s a scene where they travel to the Trojan War and meet Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton). First of all, Warburton kills it. Each line of his is delivered with his patented Warburton charm. Second of all, there are tons of Greek literary references that are both elaborated and defined within a short span of time. Since my Bachelor’s is in English Lit, I had a great time with that sequence. From references to Oedipus, turning the hero Odysseus into a bumbling oaf, and even an Achillies tossed in for good measure.
But that short scene is but one example of how well Peabody balances education and humor. As for the animation, it’s simply gorgeous. There are small bits of personality which keep the film from losing momentum and character. Whenever there’s a big action scene, Mr. Peabody always looks bored and stone faced. And just when I thought the animators wouldn’t keep up that running joke, Peabody constantly looks that way even when attention isn’t drawn to it.
It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows, however. While the film is incredibly smart, it also makes a few stale decisions with its story. The unfortunate thing about that is I can’t really criticize this (as it’s more toward the end of the story) without getting into spoiler territory. What I can say is that it doesn’t detract too much from the overall product. And while most of the jokes are spot on, when they fall flat, they really fall flat. One last thing to note is my screening was in 3D. It’s not entirely necessary for your viewing, but be prepared for lots of annoying “throw things really close to the screen” moments that plague a lot of these later era animated films.
As for the performances, I hope Ty Burrell gets to play Mr. Peabody again someday. I really couldn’t imagine anyone other than him in the role. As for child actors Max Charles and Ariel Winter, they’re wonderful. Max Charles really nails Sherman and brings some hearty weight to the easily sidetracked role. It’s an amazing showcase for the kid.
My Peabody & Sherman isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an improbably good one. It defied my initial worry about rebooting a nostalgic property just for cynical cash and quickly became more and more interesting as it rolled on. There’s something here to chew on for everyone. Educational jokes, fart jokes, and even one confusing masturbation joke.
Every dog has his day, so it’s high time Mr. Peabody gets to shine.