Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014) - A Journey Through Time with an Annoying Dog

It's a Wacky Ride Through History with the Smartest Dog Alive

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
Peabody & Sherman" (2014).
If you are old enough to have sat transfixed before your black and white Zenith television in the living room on Saturday morning - your favorite time of the whole week - watching the weekly cartoons, you no doubt know all about "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" aka "The Bullwinkle Show." These were replayed throughout the '70s and into the '80s, so it's not like you have to admit to being Methuselah or anything.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014

The interesting aspect of "Bullwinkle" is that it had several separate storylines going on, which made it somewhat confusing for a five-year-old to follow sometimes. This, however, created an entire universe of different characters beyond the main storyline of Rocky and Bullwinkle fighting off those dastardly but loveable spies, Boris and Natasha.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
A quick visit to King Tut's time doesn't go as planned.
Well, if you do remember, you're not alone. DreamWorks Animation also hasn't forgotten, which led them to produce "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" (2014), directed by Rob Minkoff based on a screenplay by that adapted "Peabody's Improbable History" by . Now, were I to pick a particular "Bullwinkle" segment to expand into a modern animated feature film, the "Peabody" segments would not have been my choice. Mr. Peabody in the original was an arch, somewhat supercilious character who was a bit off-putting, describing himself matter-of-factly as being all things wonderful and "the wolf of Wall Street" (now, where have we heard that recently...).

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014

However, director Minkoff has been on a quest to make this film for a full decade, and one can only wonder if it was opportunism or, more likely, sheer love, of the material. He hooked Tiffany Ward, the daughter of Jay Ward, one of the series' creators (it pays to have the right parents in Hollywood), to serve as an executive producer to make sure the legacy was respected. The answer appears to be that Minkoff's motivations are pure and he is a huge fan of the original, but that doesn't necessarily mean that Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a great film.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
"My, what big eyes you have."
Mr. Peabody is the smartest person in the world, with one qualification: he is not a person. Instead, he is a talking dog who never found a home as a puppy. This forced Mr. Peabody to focus on his own development and aspirations, refining his cleverness and intelligence. He finds Sherman, an abandoned infant, and manages to legally adopt him. Using a time machine (the WABAC), Mr. Peabody raises Sherman, teaching him various tricks and embarking (no pun intended) on a series of adventures with his young protégé.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
"And now for my rendition of 'Hound Dog.'"
Sherman grows up and enters school, but on his first day, he annoys classmate Penny Peterson, who bullies and embarrasses him in return. Sherman retaliates by doing what Mr. Peabody would have done, biting Penny. This leads the School Principal, Mr. Purdy, and caseworker Mrs. Grunion to schedule a home inspection to make sure it is a proper environment for the boy.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
Penny with her travelogue.
Mr. Peabody doesn't want to lose Sherman, of course, so he figures out an alternate way to end the dispute. He invites Penny's parents over to talk about it, while Sherman must visit with the malevolent Penny. He shows her the WABAC, and the two go on an adventure in it. Unfortunately, when they visit ancient Egypt, Penny gets engaged to King Tut, the boy king, and refuses to leave, so Mr. Peabody and Sherman must return there to bring her back. After various complications, they manage to escape with her, but the WABAC machine is running low on energy and needs to be recharged.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
"King Tut (King Tut)/Now when he was a young man/He never thought he'd see/People stand in line to see the boy king."
Stopping in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance, the trio find Leonardo da Vinci to help them recharge the WABAC. Penny and Sherman start to become friends, trying out Leonardo's prototype flying machine, and after the WABAC machine is recharged, they take off again. However, before they can return home, a black hole causes them to veer off course, and they wind up back in the Trojan War.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
The colors are dialed up on the extreme vivid side, as kids like them.
Sherman is excited by the war and signs up with cool King Agamemnon to help attack Troy. Penny at one point winds up in the Trojan Horse, but as Troy is destroyed, Mr. Peabody instead is the one inside the Horse and appears to have gone to dog heaven when it is destroyed. Distraught, Sherman and Penny return to the present to ask Mr. Peabody what they should do (timing their arrival before they originally left), but things go awry, and they go from bad to worse when Mrs. Grunion suddenly shows up for her home inspection. Seeing things in complete disarray and two identical Shermans and Mr. Peabodies, Mrs. Grunion immediately declares the home unfit and takes both Shermans away. The two Shermans and Peabodies touch and they merge, which further disturbs Mrs. Grunion. Irate at her interference, Mr. Peabody uncharacteristically loses his self-control and bites Mrs. Grunion.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
Sherman has a rough first day in school.
Fleeing the injured Mrs. Grunion and the probability that she will call Animal Control and have Mr. Peabody destroyed, Sherman and Mr. Peabody get in the WABAC and disappear. It malfunctions, however, and instead of taking them to the past, it brings historical figures to the present. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton all vouch for Mr. Peabody as a good caretaker of Sherman (they could have just given Clinton a call and paid his appearance fee...).

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
"Let's go fly a kite/Up to the highest height!"
They still need to set things right in the timeline, so Sherman suggests that they use the WABAC to go to the future to fix things (well, it makes sense to him...). Sherman pilots them while Mr. Peabody figures out what to do, and they successfully send all the historical figures back to their own times. Another problem is resolved when King Agamemnon falls in love with Mrs. Grunion and takes her back to the Trojan War, very much against her will, and she vows vengeance on Mr. Peabody. Things then return to normal, with the threat of Mrs. Grunion removed and Penny now a family friend.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
The originals were drawn quite well for its time.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a great introduction to historical characters for young viewers. It is chock-full of famous characters, from the aforementioned Presidents and others to Albert Einstein, Mona Lisa, Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Isaac Newton, Odysseus, and Ajax. The voice actors are familiar character actors such as Ty Burrell (Phil Dunphey from "Modern Family") as Mr. Peabody, Max Charles as Sherman, Ariel Winter (who plays "Alex Dunphey" in "Modern Family) as Penny, Allison Janney as Mrs. Grunion, Stephen Tobolowsky as Principal Purdy, Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci, and Patrick Warburton as King Agamemnon. The voice actors are all amicable and don't intrude on the pleasure of seeing familiar faces and characters going through their routines.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
Yes, she supposedly said "Let them eat cake," we get it
There are many positives and minuses about "Mr. Peabody & Sherman." Clearly, it is a film aimed at children, just as was the original series. It is smart and funny, with splendid 3D animation and a fast pace suitable for modern audiences. Some of the characters are drawn quite well - Penny really stands out, though her valley-girl appearance doesn't really match the character - while other characters are a bit nondescript. The soundtrack composed by old-time professional Danny Elfman is pretty good and even manages to work in a John Lennon song, which is always a plus in my book. Quite frankly, I also like anything that Patrick Warburton is in, and hearing Mel Brooks in a cameo also doesn't hurt.

On the downside, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is disappointing in its reliance on the "greatest hits" sort of historical touchpoints that are endemic to these time-machine films. We don't see ordinary people from the past or ordinary times, just the King Tuts and King Agamemons and Abraham Lincolns that adorn the covers of history books and have been done to death in previous (and frankly better) time-travel films such as "Time Bandits." Sure, Marie Antoinette appears - next to a giant cake. Everybody from the past is kind to kids, everyone is portrayed precisely the way you would expect. It's that kind of film. You start to wonder why they didn't fit in the obligatory visit to the Titanic or maybe the dinosaur age as well. Well, there's always the direct-to-video sequel.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
Ty Burrell is a step up from the original voice of Mr. Peabody.
Rather than developing actual characters for the leads to get to know as actual people, we instead are bombarded with caricatures that are played for laughs and imbue low-key comedy while robbing the film of whatever dramatic tension might have existed. The animation is slick, befitting a film involving Bill Clinton, but the character heads are drawn in an exaggerated size at the expense of stick-like bodies, giving the "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" characters an inconsistent doll-like appearance that is not always entirely pleasing to the eye. The visuals are fine, about what you would expect from "Assassin's Creed" types of video games.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
The two "Modern Family" stars at the Sydney Premiere.
None of this should be taken as criticism of director Rob Minkoff. After all, this is a guy who was one of the directors of "The Lion King," for goodness sakes. Adapting the source material must have been "ruff" - er, that one was intended. Minkoff has nothing to prove, his place in Hollywood is secure. As he explains:
“I grew up with the characters and I love the show. 'Mr. Peabody' was such a rich character, but he was unexplored. There was a lot they couldn’t get to in a four and half minute short. It seemed like there was a bigger idea there.”
You can't blame a talented man for trying. However, after reading about his trials and tribulations in getting this film made, with all the revisions and compromises and everything else, you realize how it could all go wrong. And there was always Tiffany to please, in this case about putting a new spin on Mr. Peabody's voice:
“Tiffany is sort of the gatekeeper and she was not convinced. She wanted to get a soundalike, which I did not want to do. To me, there was an opportunity in casting a new voice to modernize the character. I convinced Tiffany that Ty was going to get there and he started watching the show to nail the cadence. He got the underlying connection and he made it his own.”
When you are fighting with your executive producer over something as basic as the sound of the main character's voice, that's not a good sign. When a director says things after the fact like that, it is not accidental, he is making a tacit point and hoping people get it. For what it's worth in this case, retaining the highly affected voice of Mr. Peabody from the original would have been a disaster, and Minkoff undoubtedly made the right choice. Fortunately, he won that battle. But that undoubtedly was just one struggle among many, and each one saps a little inspiration from a project. The frequent studio changes and having to please different sets of executives with their own agendas couldn't have helped, either.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
The artist, hard at work.
One gets the impression from Mr. Minkoff's statements that the struggle to get the film made at all sent it wildly off course:
“I had the great good fortune to have Chuck Jones as a mentor and one of my first questions to him was, who did they make Bugs Bunny for? They never made the shows for kids. They made them to amuse themselves. If they laughed, it meant other people might laugh too. There has to be a range of jokes. Some are more slapstick and physical. Others are more verbal and cerebral.”
That's an awesome comment about the great Chuck Jones and how he created his classic comedy, and no doubt talking to Minkoff about animation would be like taking a graduate seminar. However, the statement also is sort of explanatory in a defensive way, as if he realizes what the problem is with the finished product "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" and is trying to explain that he knows what it should and could have been regardless of how it actually turned out. It may have been Minkoff's intent to make "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" for adults, but apparently, something went seriously wrong on the way to the French Revolution. A film for adults wouldn't take the crass shortcut of portraying Marie Antoinette eating a giant cake (there's a good amount of evidence that she never even said "Let them eat cake," that was anti-royalist propaganda), and having our heroic trio buzzing in at random on Leonardo da Vinci right as he is polishing off the one painting everybody in grade school knows about - the Mona Lisa - just smacks of dumbing things down for, well, kids. And that's terrific - in a film aimed at kids.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014
All of the characters from the past are very kid-friendly.
Ultimately, trying to pin down what was intended and what went wrong is pointless. The finished product is what it is, and that's what we see and judge. Just like the original, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a soft-edged wry pseudo-comedy aimed at kids, with no ambition displayed to aim higher or create a memorable plot. Instead, it is formulaic and relies on slapstick, weak jokes and lame, obvious send-ups of historical stereotypes. Does that make "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" a bad movie? Certainly not. However, among cutting edge animation feature films, it is an also-ran, just as the original "Peabody" segments in "Bullwinkle" were the ones you as a kid may have sat through impatiently, waiting to see Rocky, Boris, and Natasha again. "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is simply ok, no more, no less. If you are an adult not particularly into old cartoons and just doing your parent-ly weekend duty taking your kids to see the new animation flick, may I humbly suggest that you drink some coffee before or during your theater visit (unless you need some rest and don't snore too loudly)? You'll probably thank me.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman DreamWorks Animation 2014


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