Mr. Peabody and Sherman review

Fifth time’s the charm, I suppose. After four critically and commercially failed adaptations of the animated properties of Jay Ward, Saturday morning cartoonist extraordinaire, from the 1992 Showtime exclusive Boris and Natasha to 2000’s CGI disaster The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dreamworks has finally done Ward justice with a hilarious and heartfelt joyride through the lives of brilliant (and not at all humble) time-traveling mutt Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell in a droll transatlantic accent one hair sans fleas from Kelsey Grammar) and his dorky but dutiful adopted human son Sherman (Max Charles).

This time around, the duo is joined by newcomer Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), a spunky 7-year-old blonde who undergoes a transformation from a stereotypical spoiled girl to a fellow WABAC machine passenger, though her primary role as Sherman’s love interest unfortunately keeps her independence in check. A supporting cast—comprised of Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Patrick Warburton (Puddy from Seinfeld), and even Mel Brooks, whose cameo in a subtle nod to History of the World Pt. I.—gives the film potential, which it follows through with an uproarious (and maybe a tad too sophisticated for younger members of its target audience) script loaded with historical in-jokes, slapstick, puns, and wit, the likes of which haven’t been seen in mainstream children’s animation since Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs went off the air in 1998.

Though this may seem like manna from Hollywood for moviegoers disgruntled with the recent intellectual decline of family cinema, discretion and humorous evaluation are both advised for pure historical and mythological sticklers since Sherman and Peabody’s space-time continuum is one where George Washington (Animaniacs’ Jess Harnell) cut down no cherry trees but Marie Antoinette (Laurie Fraser) said “let them eat cake;” the machismo-fueled Agamemnon’s (Warburton) army during the Trojan War includes the likes of Odysseus (Tom McCrath), Achilles, and Oedipus alongside Menelaus and Ajax (Al Rodrigo); and Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) employs the help of a dog and his boy to win the smile of his irritable girlfriend Mona Lisa (Childrens Hospital’s Lake Bell).

But what’s truly impressive about Mr. Peabody and Sherman is the thoughtful handling of its somewhat unusual dramatic themes. It was a wise decision for director Rob Minkoff to tweak the relationship between the characters from Jay Ward’s original vision of canine master and human pet to the more humane one of father and son. Though Sherman may still address his adoptive father as “Mr. Peabody” instead of “Dad,” they share an emotional bond that’s threatened on multiple occasions throughout the film by remorseless and rotund Child Services director Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), who believes a dog to be an unfit guardian for a 7-year-old schoolboy, regardless of intelligence, and is willing to separate the duo at any given moment in time. Grunion may be a bit too derivative of the equally detestable bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, but that only makes viewers’ sympathies with Peabody and Sherman stronger.

But alas, Peabody is not quite perfection. In an era in which every major animated feature and Walking With Dinosaurs has been rendered in CGI, many prize-worthy scripts have been weighed down by three-dimensional clunkiness. Over the course of 19 years, Pixar has time and time again succeeded in conveying realism, but Dreamworks in particular has been known to stroll in and out of the uncanny valley from time to time with even its best-loved franchise Shrek little more than a pop-up cartoon. Though it pains me to pick on the poor little guy, Sherman is that valley. In the original shorts, he was a series of lines that could be sketched in a mere minute, but here his exaggeratedly eager grins and other facial features overpower the viewer while making him look more chipmunk than human; it is only due to his stoic lack of expression that Peabody is more tolerable. Yet both of them are not at all well-designed for action sequences, with their oversized heads acting as baggage during the slightest movement. Jay Ward’s animation style was so simplistic it made Hanna-Barbera look high-tech, with critics likening it to an illustrated radio series due to its reliance on witty dialogue and characterization over state-of-the-art imagery. Though it is more difficult to overlook an overdeveloped animated universe than an underdeveloped one, I will only subtract $2 from Peabody for its flawed CGI. If you can only see one animated movie this year, see The LEGO Movie. But if you have room for one more, give Peabody a shot as well.


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