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Featuring a hyperintelligent, talking, time-traveling dog and his boy, 3D cartoon Mr. Peabody & Sherman represents a pleasant, polished, but somewhat by-the-numbers effort, a throat-clearing exercise to kick off 2014 for DreamWorks Animation before they blitzkrieg the box office with How to Train Your Dragon 2 in June. The studio must surely be hoping to claw back some market share after such disappointing performers as Rise of the Guardians and Turbo, but this is effectively a gamble on an unknown brand, given it reprises characters largely unfamiliar to viewers outside of North America. Even in that territory, only middle-aged parents, grandparents and die-hard animation geeks will remember the four-and-a-half minute Peabody’s Improbable History skits that were bundled together with segments featuring the more-famous eponymous heroes of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, first broadcast in 1959.
Here, screenwriter Craig Wright (Six Feet Under) and director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion) pay homage to the spirit of the original Saturday-morning shorts with puns a plenty and history-based high jinks. Unfortunately, somebody somewhere decided they needed to pile the sentimentality on thick as birthday cupcake frosting, even if its pro-adoption, pro-unconventional-family message is laudable.
It was probably inevitable that, given the demands of feature length and modern expectations for family entertainment, the decision would be taken to flesh out the literally sketchy characters created by Ted Key for producer Jay Ward’s cartoon variety show and graft on a homiletic emotional arc. Although a cursory rifle through YouTube will prove that Wright and Minkoff have been largely faithful to the origin story of how clever canine Mr. Peabody came to adopt orphan Sherman, this 2014 iteration makes a much bigger meal out of the whole thing. Spinning out plot that took all of three minutes on TV, the first 15 minutes of the feature ploddingly explains how after polymath pooch Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell with more deliberation than the rat-a-tat delivery of original voice actor Bill Scott) becomes a father to orphan Sherman (Max Charles). Although the opening montage shows how Peabody set a judicial precedent with the cross-species adoption, and makes every effort to promote Sherman’s education — especially with the help of the WABAC, their time-travel machine — he remains a formal, emotionally reserved parent, responding to Sherman’s profession of love with a clipped, “I have a deep regard for you as well.”
No prizes for guessing that teaching Peabody about good parenting will be a major theme, but it’s a move that sacrifices the whimsy that so charmed in the original series. Back in the old days, Peabody and Sherman went off to meet the likes of the Marquis of Queensbury or Galileo in a spirit of larky adventurousness, saved them from making foolish mistakes, and always got home in time for the final punning-punchline. Borrowing from the classic time-travel movie playbook, the feature motivates action almost entirely through contrived dangers posed by meddlesome outside forces.
The first and foremost threat to their happiness is social worker Miss Grunion (voiced by Allison Janney), a battle-ax busybody who believes that a dog “could never be a suitable parent for a little boy.” Perhaps her prejudice is meant to be taken simply on face value, but it’s not hard to read an occluded homophobia into her disgust with Sherman’s adoption by Peabody, especially since the fussy, bow-tied bachelor beagle has a slightly effeminate air about him, reminiscent of old-fashioned gay stereotypes. This subtextual reading is bolstered further in the film’s climactic emotional moment when Sherman appropriates an insult hurled at him earlier (someone calls him a dog) and turns it into a badge of pride, recalling the jujitsu rebranding of the word “queer.”
That insult, the instigating action which serves as the crux of the story, comes first from Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter, who plays Burrell’s daughter in Modern Family), a hyper-competitive classmate of Sherman’s who manages to rile the boy so badly with verbal bullying he bites her, bringing down the wrath of both Miss Grunion and Penny’s parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert). When the Paterson family comes over to Peabody and Sherman’s house for dinner to try make peace, Sherman disobeys his dad and uses the WABAC to prove to Penny how he knows that George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. And so begins an adventure through history, that starts in ancient Egypt with Penny getting betrothed to 9-year-old tyrant King Tut (Zach Callison), and carries on through encounters with Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), and Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) on the eve of the sacking of Troy, amongst others. (Rather sweetly, Mel Brooks, whose 2000-year-old man character tapped the same zeitgeist as the original Peabody sketches, has a cameo as Albert Einstein.)
The action climax, involving that old favorite, a rupture in the space-time continuum, ties things up with a noisy enough amount of action to satisfy less critical younger viewers, but some might find the denouement a bit too perfunctory. More troubling still is the thinness of some of the characterizations, especially the Aryan-featured Penny who starts out as a stone-cold mean girl, is barely given backstory to make her sympathetic, causes nothing but trouble, and then too-abruptly becomes Sherman’s love interest and friend. More cynical observers might postulate that she’s there mostly to add a female presence to the marketing materials lest the film appear too male-skewed.
The film’s saving grace is its character design and use of 3D techniques to speed things up in every sense when the plot starts to flag. Minkoff and his animating team have struck a judicious balance between honoring the simplified features of the huge-headed original characters, and updating with added dimensionality, lighting and a much richer, supersaturated color palette. Just by cleverly tweaking the position of eyebrows and mouths, they’ve coaxed a great deal of expressiveness from the figures, who of course move with much more smoothness and plasticity than the limited animation figures of the early ’60s, a style that modern audiences just won’t swallow any more. All in all, a nice, humming tension is maintained here between retro design elements, child-friendly antics, and contemporary references aimed at grownups, gags that go from autocue to Zumba. Thankfully, there aren’t so many that they become a distraction, as they did in the later installments of the Shrek franchise.
Whether it will sell to kids, especially in trickier offshore territories, will all be down to word of mouth in the school yards, although timing the release in Europe to coincide with the half-term breaks most kids have in February is a canny move, especially since by now most parents couldn’t face seeing Disney’s Frozen many more times.
Opens: Feb. 7, 2014 (in the United Kingdom); March 7, 2014 (Twentieth Century Fox)
Production: A DreamWorks Animation presentation of a PDI/DreamWorks, Bullwinkle Studios production
Voice cast:Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Leslie Mann, Stephen Colbert
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenwriter: Craig Wright, based on the series produced by Jay Ward
Producers: Alex Schwartz, Denise Nolan Cascino
Executive producer: Tiffany Ward
Visual effects technical director: Naveen Kumar Bolla
Head of character animation: Jason Schleifer
Editor: Michael Andrews
Music: Danny Elfman
Rated PG, 92 minutes
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