By Melissa Agar
Mr. Peabody & Sherman (DreamWorks, Bullwinkle Studios, 2014) – Director: Rob Minkoff. Writers: Jay Ward (based on the series produced by), Craig Wright (s/p), Robert Ben Garant, and Thomas Lennon (additional dialogue). Voices: Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Lauri Fraser, Guillaume Aretos, Patrice A. Musick, Ariel Winter, Karan Brar, Stephen Tobolowsky, Allison Janney, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Zach Callison, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Mel Brooks, & Jess Harnell. Rated PG. Color, 92 minutes
For as long as I can remember, Sundays have been my favorite days of the week. Because of my work as a high school English/speech/drama teacher, Saturdays are often spent building sets for our Drama Club productions or accompanying my speech team to daylong meets. So Sunday is sometimes my only true day off. It’s a day for sleeping in, running errands, catching a movie at the local multiplex, or taking care of stuff around the house. In college, Sundays were the days to sleep off the previous night’s activities and catch up on homework before meeting up with friends to order a pizza.
As a kid, Sunday mornings meant curling up with Dad and watching Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of my earliest memories is sitting next to my dad on the couch and giggling at the adventures of the flying squirrel and his moose buddy. Of all the segments on the show, though, my favorite was always “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History,” a segment that found the genius dog, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted human son, Sherman, traveling through time to rub elbows with such historical luminaries as Napoleon, Leonardo da Vinci, and Cleopatra. Those Sunday mornings giggling at Peabody’s adventures sparked a love of history that has stuck with me for life. So you can imagine my excitement last summer when the first previews for Dreamworks’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman hit theaters and the film itself opened this weekend.
Like the cartoon shorts from the 1960s, Mr. Peabody & Sherman tells the story of a genius dog who has adopted a human boy named Sherman and has built a time machine, called the WABAC Machine, to teach the boy history. As the film opens, Peabody (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) and Sherman (Charles) have just escaped Robespierre’s guillotine just in time for a huge moment in Sherman’s life – his first day of school. Sherman quickly establishes himself as a history prodigy when he corrects his classmate Penny’s (Winters) assertion that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. Penny is incensed and proceeds to bully Sherman about his dog father, an encounter that ultimately ends in Sherman biting Penny and school officials calling child welfare officer Ms. Grunion (Janney). She informs Mr. Peabody she will be doing a home visit to determine whether or not Peabody should retain custody of his son – and indicating that she is determined to remove Sherman from the dog’s home. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Mann and Colbert) over to try to broker peace between the children, and Sherman decides to impress the girl by showing off his father’s WABAC Machine. Before long, Penny is betrothed to King Tut, and Peabody and Sherman must save her before the girl is married to the doomed king.
For people like me who grew up watching Mr. Peabody & Sherman, this movie hits all the notes we’re looking for. There are Peabody’s groan-inducing puns, a bevy of familiar historical figures, and crazy adventures. Here, though, a little more heart is added. While Peabody was a good caretaker to Sherman, there was always a sort of distance between the dog and his boy in the older version. Peabody seemed less paternal and more like his employer. Now, Peabody clearly loves his boy, panicked that the boy might be removed from his home and hurt that Sherman’s fight with Penny stemmed from Sherman being insulted when Penny called him a dog.
The film becomes a veiled examination, then, of “non-traditional” homes. Grunion and Penny’s father are both appalled at the notion of Sherman being raised by a dog, and Grunion is determined to overrule the court ruling that allowed for the adoption to take place. Sherman, too, must come to terms with his non-traditional home and deal with the embarrassment a dog father creates amongst his judgmental classmate. That shame cuts Peabody to the quick, and it’s a pain that I’m sure many parents have felt as their own children begin to realize that their homes are different from their classmates.
Not that Mr. Sherman & Peabody beats the audience over the head with a political agenda. While the subtext could be interpreted, the film is largely focused on wacky adventures through time with Peabody, Sherman, and Penny escaping King Tut, helping da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa, and hanging out with Agamemnon in the Trojan Horse. Like the old series, there are a lot of jokes sure to go over the heads of the children in the audience. (There were many times when the only laughter to be heard was adult laughter – okay, mostly mine.) That’s not to say that kids won’t respond as the film mixes in enough sight gags and goofy jokes to keep them laughing, too. Yes, a lot of the “kid friendly” humor often relies on bathroom jokes (the Greek armies emerge from the butt of the Trojan horse, for example, which resulted in gales of childish laughter – and yes, mine, too), but the toilet jokes are largely harmless and silly, which is the very spirit of the old cartoons – finding that right blend of silly and smart to create entertainment that crosses the generations.
If there’s any real complaint to be had with the film, it largely lies in the third act of the film, which finds a rip developing in the time-space continuum, resulting in present-day New York City becoming host to a bevy of historical figures (and objects) falling from the sky. While there is fun to be had with the collision of these historical figures with contemporary society, the film doesn’t seem to find enough fun and a lot of the moments feel rushed as the film tries to wrap up its primary conflicts. The actual solution to the problem also seems a bit muddied, as if the writers are counting on the kids in the audience to just shrug off the logical weaknesses and the parents to be too apathetic to care that things really don’t make a lot of sense here.
Of course, there is an inherent lack of logic in most time travel stories (says the woman whose iPhone cover is a Tardis), so it’s not that hard to put aside the issues the third act introduces and focus instead on the charming first two acts, the humor that still exists in that wonky third act, and the ultimate heart that lies at the core of this film.
There was something sort of perfect about spending my Sunday with Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It was a wonderfully nostalgic moment, although there is a part of me that feels incredibly old seeing the shows I grew up with being a part of this nostalgic re-branding for Generation X and its offspring. I may not have the offspring with which to share the pop cultural memories of my youth, but I’ll happily take that walk down Memory Lane if the product is as funny and smart as Mr. Peabody & Sherman.