Mark Reviews Movies

Mr. Peabody & Sherman


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rob Minkoff

Cast: The voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Partrick Warburton, Guillaume Aretos, Stephen Tobolowsky, Zach Callison, Dennis Haysbert, Lake Bell, Lauri Fraser, Mel Brooks

MPAA Rating: PG (for some mild action and brief rude humor)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 3/7/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 7, 2014

For the first 10 minutes or so of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, it appears that screenwriter Craig Wright and director Rob Minkoff have found just the right approach to adapting and, more importantly, updating the adventures of a time-traveling Beagle and his boy. The movie's style is far removed from the original cartoon created by Ted Key and featured as part of Jay Ward's television show featuring a moose named Bullwinkle, a flying squirrel named Rocky, and a bunch of their friends, but in the movie's prologue, we quickly get past the hurdle of appearances.

Yes, Peabody and Sherman are now the products of computer animation, and yes, it's missing the charm of the off-kilter lines and choppy but lovingly hand-drawn animation. Yes, Peabody is always on his hind legs, and yes, Sherman looks like a computer-animated boy of the generic variety. Still, though, that opening has momentum, a feeling of discovery, and, above all, a sense of invention.

For those not in the know, Mr. Peabody (voice of Ty Burrell) is a talking dog and one of the world's foremost geniuses—an inventor, a philosopher, a master of logic and various martial arts. He graduated from Harvard and, after much professional success, currently resides in a penthouse apartment in New York City. The movie sees him as a puppy at a pound, overlooked by many a potential, loving owner because he has his head crammed in Plato or argues about the logic of playing fetch ("You're just going to throw the stick again," he tells a boy, who immediately looks elsewhere).

His son is Sherman (voice of Max Charles), a 7-year-old human child whom Peabody adopted because, well, every dog needs a boy (or, as the judge puts it, "If a boy can adopt a dog, I see no reason a dog cannot adopt a boy"). Knowing the limitations of his own puppyhood, Peabody insists that Sherman learn all he can, especially about history, and to that end, the dog invented a time machine called the WABAC (pronounced "way-back).

The prologue's climax involves their last trip into past before Sherman begins his first day of school. They head to Paris in 1793 to witness the French Revolution and kind-of, sort-of accidentally start it by refusing Marie Antoinette's offer of cake. Then the Reign of Terror hits, and Peabody is carted off to the guillotine with the other aristocrats.

It's dark stuff, but there's also a bit of delight in the way Peabody uses his ability for impromptu decision-making to escape—seeing diagrams of infrastructure, plotted trajectories, and other things necessary to make a last-second switch as the blade drops.  He's smart, but the movie doesn't turn him into an anti-social fool. Even when he displays trouble grasping emotions (When Sherman says he loves his father, Peabody responds, "I have a deep regard for you, too"), Peabody is still likeable, and that goes a long way when a character's go-to brand of humor is the pun.

The reason the opening sequence works is because it stands alone, but soon after, Wright introduces a central plot that steadily diminishes the promise of the more episodic narrative established in the beginning. Sherman goes to school and is bullied by classmate Penny (voice of Ariel Winter), a spoiled brat who stays that way for most of the movie until necessity dictates that she not be. He bites her in response, and a Child Protective Services agent (voice of Allison Janney) threatens to take Sherman away from Peabody.

Peabody decides to impress Penny's parents (voices of Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) with dinner, drinks, and conversation at his apartment, and Sherman decides to try to impress Penny with the WABAC. Penny decides to stay in ancient Egypt to marry a young pharaoh, and the father-son team go back to rescue her from her shortsightedness regarding ancient Egyptian funeral practices for the surviving widow of a deceased pharoah.

The Egypt segment—and the movie is at its best when it's intentionally divided into segments—is also amusing, but once it's complete, that's also pretty much the end of the movie's attempt at an episodic narrative. From there, it's all about the trio getting back to the present and making stops along the way for them all to have moments of revelation.

Peabody is too tough on his son (Leonardo da Vinci, voiced by Stanley Tucci, explains this, although the distraction of the stereotypical "a" at the end of every word lessens the lesson). Sherman has to learn to be his own person aside from his father's son. The relationship between the two is established in a montage that shows Peabody raising the boy in reverse, taking him to various points in history to meet famous people. It's touching, but there's a disconnect from the relationship's impact because the only reason it matters is the generic conflict that could rip it apart.

By the time Mr. Peabody & Sherman has given us a hole in the space-time continuum, it no longer has the quaint feel of its start, where intellect and imagination are more than enough for a dog and his boy. For all the flashbacks and external forces and close calls that try to develop this relationship, the movie doesn't realize the answer is in a single question: "What did you learn today?"

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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