Friday, March 27, 2015

Mr. Peabody & Sherman Review

There have been a lot of movies in recent years that were based on cartoons that the baby boomer generation grew up watching, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rocky and Bullwinkle among others. Most featured CGI animated versions of these normally 2D characters interacting with live actors, and most have been notably bad. For the first time I can think of, one cartoon featured a fully digital animated feature based off of one of these cartoons. Namely the Peabody's Improbable History segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014). I've got to say, I was pretty impressed.
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a business titan, inventor, scientist, gourmand, two-time Olympic medalist, and genius who also happens to be a dog. Using his most ingenious invention the WABAC machine, Mr. Peabody and his adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) hurtle back in time to experience world-changing events first-hand and interact with some of the greatest historical figures of all time. But when Sherman breaks the rules of time travel, our two heroes find themselves in a race to repair history and save the future, while Mr. Peabody may face his biggest challenge yet - being a parent.
The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show originally ran from 1959 to 1964, but I still enjoyed watching reruns a great deal as a kid in the 80's. It was known for its quality writing and wry humor. Mixing puns, cultural and topical satire, and self-referential humor, it appealed to adults as well as kids. The art had a choppy, unpolished look and the animation is extremely limited even by television animation standards at the time. Yet the series has long been held in high esteem by those who have seen it; some critics described the series as a well-written radio program with pictures.
Holding true to its roots, Mr. Peabody & Sherman have a similar style of writing; it's witty, somewhat satirical, and chockfull of puns. In the original Mr. Peabody would take Sherman on time travel trips to educate the boy. While the lesson of the episode was a nice moral, it was always delivered as a terrific groaner of a pun. Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens with what would have been a typical episode of the original cartoon. The movie, though, features a lot more action than the cartoon's notoriously poor animation could deliver, but had just as much silly cartoon goofiness that made the TV Show famous. The voice actors also sound remarkably like the original characters.
Something unique the movie does which the cartoon never did was develop the characters. In the cartoon the characters were just means of setting up and delivering silly jokes. In the movie we see Mr. Peabody and Sherman face personal obstacles and interpersonal conflict with one another and other characters. This takes the form of token family bonding stuff that seems to be obligatory in most family films. Yet there are a few moments where it's done really well. There's a montage early in the movie as Mr. Peabody reflects upon photos of him raising Sherman which prompt some touching flashbacks. There's another scene where Mr. Peabody is getting advice from Leonardo da Vinci on the nature of children and how they learn and grow which ends up being more poignant than I would have expected. Then at the conclusion there's so much sweetness and love between the characters I actually got just a bit choked up.
On top of the common "what it means to be family" message, there's an oft overlooked exploration of adoptive families. Disney so often uses orphan characters for the purpose of garnering empathy from the audience, but never explores much once we feel for the characters. In Mr. Peabody & Sherman it uses the complications of adoptive familial relationships to add further depth to the characters. Sherman has to defend himself against school mates who insist that he doesn't really have a father, or more specifically endure bullying from kids who say he's a dog because his father is a dog. You don't see that kind of trouble in movie adoptive families, but it's a very real thing that real adoptive families endure. Mr. Peabody & Sherman get bonus points for that.
Another unexpected thing that I didn't expect was having issues with time travel and paradoxes. On the one hand that gave our heroes some obstacles to overcome and made for some interesting, though still very cartoonish, wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff to deal with. But on the other hand, I felt like that story arch moved a bit too far from the original whimsical slapstick-driven shorts on which it's based. Time travel was obviously important, but they got a little too close to a Doctor Who sort of story than what it should have. Don't get me wrong, I love Doctor Who; but Mr. Peabody & Sherman and Doctor Who are very different things and shouldn't overlap quite this much. Never the less, the concepts of time paradoxes were explained simply enough for kids to keep up with.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a whip-smart, consistently funny and good-natured film with some terrific voice performances. The fun does get a little strained as it goes on, but remains a mostly solid family film that anyone could enjoy. There's some touching moments of family love and some that were trying a bit too hard. The animation was pretty great, too. I saw it in 2D which I recommend since it seemed to rely on 3D gimmicks whole lot. Baby Boomers who grew up watching The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show or anyone who enjoyed the reruns growing up will likely get the biggest kick out of this movie. I'm not sure why Mr. Peabody & Sherman did poorly at the box office; it was way better than most of the baby boomer cartoon remakes I've seen thus far. I recommend seeing it, and possibly consider owning a copy if you've got small kids in the house. As of writing this review, it is available on Netflix streaming; go give it a shot!

What has been your favorite movie based on an old school cartoon? George of the Jungle is probably mine. Comment below and let me know!

1 comment:

  1. The movie was excellent, however, Leslie Mann playing the part of Jane lacked the profile of the Ursula and her twin that only appears in the closing credits in the 1970's series.

    By far my favorite line in the movie, from the 'dumb as George' clueless aristocratic guys, "Why are chicks fascinated with horses?"

    - Super Dad