DreamWorks Animation is a very frustrating studio. It seems that for every fantastic feature they release, they follow it with a lazily written, throwaway film that panders to the youngest of audience members, and with the common marketing practice of using the most childish of gags in the trailers, it becomes very hard to predict which type of DreamWorks movie you’re going into. It also doesn’t help that this is the fourth in a disappointing line of films based on characters and segments from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, so it is perfectly reasonable to expect Mr. Peabody and Sherman to be just another film in that will disappoint.
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the smartest being in the world, he is also a talking dog, a dog that is incredibly accomplished, but his biggest devotion is being a father to his adopted son, Sherman (Max Charles). On Sherman’s first day of school, he is bullied by Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) to which he responds by biting her. Mr. Peabody is threatened of removal of custody by Children’s Service agent, Ms. Grunion, so Mr. Peabody decides it’s best to invite the Petersons to his home, so they can resolve the conflict. However, things turn crazy when Sherman ends up revealing the WABAC, a time machine, to Penny, resulting in them requiring Mr. Peabody’s help, going through various historical eras and fixing the space-time continuum.
Let me start by saying, don’t worry; this is one of the good DreamWorks films. It is surprising just how the film stays true to the spirit of the original show. It is modernized, but it’s done so in a way that makes sense for the characters. The backstory added for Mr. Peabody and how he adopted Sherman is a beautiful segment that adds a lot of emotional resonance for the characters, which was very reminiscent of the opening of Pixar’s Up (except…you know, without the infertility and death). The film is also incredibly funny, with most of the humor being very smart. I’d go as far as to say that most of the jokes are geared more towards older audiences than they are children. If you are a history buff like me, you will have a blast finding various historical references in the humor, especially with the puns, and boy, the puns are in full force in this film. Film geeks will also appreciate the relatively subtle movie references made that are fitting to the particular time period that Mr. Peabody, Sherman and Penny are in. The writing is superb overall, with great appreciation toward the fact that the film doesn’t completely fall under the many traps plaguing modern family films.
The voice acting is top notch. Though Ty Burrell doesn’t necessarily sound like the original voice by Bill Scott, he perfectly mimics the very calm and calculated tone of Mr. Peabody, while also adding some fatherly warmth in the more emotional scenes. Max Charles is very enjoyable as Sherman; he manages to convey a very realistic reaction to the crazy situations that his character goes through and his genuine naiveté and earnestness comes off as immensely charming. The fantastic supporting cast also do a great job with all their characters, and for those paying attention, you might find some fun cameos with the historical figures. Oh, and not that it necessarily needed to be said, especially if you’ve seen the trailers, but Patrick Warburton steals every scene he’s in as Agamemnon because…well…he’s Patrick Warburton and he excels as stealing the show in everything he’s in.
In terms of the technical aspects of the film; the animation is gorgeous. At first it was a bit odd to see the 60’s character design translated to 3D animation, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Speaking of 3D, if you do pay the extra for a 3D ticket, you will not be disappointed, since the film makes great use of 3D, as most animations do, but they manage to create a consistently stunning effect throughout the film, with the WABAC moments as great examples of really good 3D moments. The music was very much in keeping of the fun and adventurous mood of the film, which I didn’t find out until the end credits, was done by the one and only, Danny Elfman. This film is also notable in that it marks the, now safe to say, triumphant return to animation for director Rob Minkoff, whose last (and only) animation was The Lion King back in 1994, with his other features after that being live-action. This is also marks for an impressive cinematic screenwriting debut for Craig Wright, who is known for his television work, such as Six Feet Under and Dirty Sexy Money. He does an incredibly job adapting and appropriately modernizing the show for the film, and the segments that are there to teach historical lessons are also very welcome.
The film, as great as it is, is certainly not without its faults. One aspect that I feel should have been removed from the film completely is the Children’s Service agent, Ms. Grunion, who acts as the villain of the film. I felt that she had no real bearing on the overall story, so her place in the film just didn’t feel necessary; not to mention the fact that she is only in the film for ten, maybe fifteen minutes of the film, so in the end, she did not make an impact on me or, for that matter, the story whatsoever. The film would work just as good, possibly better, if her character was removed. I also think that Penny Peterson’s character development could have been handled better. She starts off extremely unlikeable, as she heartlessly bullies Sherman at school for having a dog for a father, and later, about halfway through the film, Mr. Peabody jokingly implies that Sherman likes Penny, which he does a terrible job at denying, and then after that, Sherman and Penny act like friends, though she does continue to be a bad influence on him. The development was definitely lacking, and I felt this is something that could have been improved in an otherwise, well-written film. I feel like I should also mention that the plot gets a bit convoluted by the third act, but that’s more so in keeping with typical time-travel movie tradition, so this is not a big deal for me. One last thing that I’m not sure is fault or not, but I think it deserves mentioning; I feel that children might not like this film as much as teenagers and adults. With most of the jokes being very detailed in historical knowledge and other educational tidbits, I could easily imagine a child getting bored because the film’s humor constantly goes over their heads, but that’s a case-by-case thing, and does not apply to all children.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a refreshingly smart animated film that manages to give something for practically everybody. History buffs will like the historical humor, movie fans will like the various references, fans of the old show will appreciate the respectful adaptation of the show, parents forced to sit through the film because of their kids will have a fun enough time with its fast-paced humor and kids should be able to enjoy the film as a fun adventure with likable characters, even if they don’t find it as funny as the adults. There’s even something to like about a family film that supports unconventional family structures, with Mr. Peabody adopting Sherman being a big deal for a few characters that have a hard time accepting it. It’s subtle and clever, without feeling like it’s beating you over the head with a message. The film’s charm and likability are more than enough to forgive its faults and the result will keep you laughing, engaged and who knows, maybe you’ll learn something new, and hopefully the original show will get some new fans as well.
Side Note: Though some may make the obvious comparisons to films like Back to the Future or Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, I think there’s another film connection that makes more sense to me, and that film is Mel Brooks’ 1981 film, History of the World, Part I (highly recommended by the way). Both films have segments in different time periods, with fun celebrity cameos with various historical figures, and they both have a similar style of fast-paced, joke-a-minute style of comedy. So, for fans who are bummed that we’ll never get our promised History of the World, Part II, Mr. Peabody and Sherman makes for a great spiritual sequel. While I’m on that subject, there may be a certain someone having a cameo as Einstein in the film that will make fans go nuts.