“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Starring Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Stephen Colbert, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton
Animation, Adventure, Comedy
“If a boy can adopt a dog then I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy,” goes the logic of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a tale (tail?) of accomplished, anthropomorphic pooch, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted carrot-topped son, Sherman. With a time machine called the “Way Back” at their fingertips (pawtips?), Peabody and Sherman bound through time to learn history lessons first hand. From witnessing Marie Antoinette spout her infamous cake one-liner to rubbing elbows with an unmummified King Tut through getting up close and personal with Agamemnon and his Trojan horse, Mr. Peabody’s field trips really can’t be topped. Being along for the history-hopping ride makes for some quality, light-hearted entertainment and offers a chance for colorful characters and backdrops of various aesthetic quality. Although the magic comes apart in the third act, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a mostly witty and endearing spectacle that will please kiddies and adults alike, with extra points for slipping in a few abridged history lessons.
Dating back to the late 1950s, Sherman and Mr. Peabody first appeared on the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” becoming a bit of a cult sensation. Here in 2014 though, the dog imbued with human qualities is somewhat commonplace what with the cultural reach of Seth McFarlane. In many ways, Peabody is a less crude version of Family Guy‘s Brian. With Peabody’s witticism, his deadpan delivery and bottomless charm, he’s a PG concoction of sassy booze-hound Brian and literature-lovin’ Jack Russell Terrier, Wishbone. Though history makes the argument that Brian is a knowing riff on Peabody, many ignorant of his historical context won’t see it for that.
Director Rob Minkoff may be responsible for the dreadful likes of The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little but he also has one of Disney’s greatest under his belt: The Lion King. And though we wonder how much of his time spent on such commercial dreck as the aforementioned may have rubbed off on Minkoff, his tenure with Disney during their animation Renaissance mostly shines through. Characteristically, the digitally animated visual landscape pops, the characters are inoffensive but never unbearably so and, in a way that only animation can really achieve, everything is larger-than-life. This is Minkoff’s gift and his curse. Accordingly, he’s never able to make the affairs feel quite real enough so even when the world’s end is threatened, we’re never really thinking that things could actually tip that way. As Peabody once comments to a pun-oblivious Sherman, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The voice acting, for one, is as hammy as Christmas leftovers. Work from Patrick Warburton, who you likely know as Elaine’s on-again-off-again beau Puddy on Seinfeld, stands out as the symbolic ring leader of a band of actors goofing off in the sound booth. His take on Agamemnon is overbearing as his profound commerical work for M&M’s or Honda. His character, like the movie at large, would have worked better had he toned it down a little bit and found the character beyond the caricature.
Ty Burnell, the beloved patriarch of Modern Family, is suitable as the know-it-all Peabody (I would however have loved to see the original casting, Robert Downey Jr., in the role) but his stiff accent tends to keep him from ever feeling much deeper than a cartoon character. If there’s anyone who’s able to pull at our heartstrings through his casual voice work it’s little Max Charles, offering an earnest and rounded portrait of adoptee Sherman.
The unassuming duo manage to win over pretty much any historical figure their time machine lets them come across just as they manage to win over the goodwill of the audience. Their unorthodox father-son relationship is the anchor of the film but often dabbles in oft-tread territory. Take for example, the fact that many of the themes explored here are abundantly familiar to the genre – the challenges of parenting a maturing child, students adjusting to new roles at school, bureaucratic bullheadedness sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, and trepidatiously relinquishing autonomy to your children. They do a fine job when treading the straight and narrow but it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, which would have been more interesting to see them navigate.
A through line for the piece emerges as Sherman becomes the target of a full-blown tease assualt. Classmate and eventual crush, Penny, labels him a “dog”, with all the negative connotations that come along with such. Throughout the film, Sherman fights against this label, proving to himself and others that he’s more human than dog. It’s when Sherman finally realizes that maybe being a dog isn’t such a bad thing after all that we witness a sigh-worthy, ramble-rousing, Spartacus moment: “I’m a dog”, “I’m a dog”, “I’m a dog.” Typical. But within this third-act revelation comes cleverly disguised potent thematic elements that poke at xenophobic tolerance and breaking the inbred stigma of seeing the “other” as wolves in sheep’s clothing. And that’s at least something.