I’m too young to remember Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends, the children’s show from which Mr. Peabody and Sherman were conceived, and though I did see a few reruns of the show when I was a kid, it’s still been quite a long time, thus I have very little to no recollection of the original characters or how they were portrayed way back — (get it!) — in the ’60s. Because of this, I pretty much went into the updated film version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman as a relative newbie and came out a little surprised and a little affectionate toward the title characters, if not completely blown away by the film itself.
The story follows our heroes on a witty adventure through time, as Mr. Peabody (voiced by Phil Dunphy… er… Ty Burrell) jumps from one historical event to another in an attempt to stop Sherman (Max Charles) and Sherman’s school friend/chum/acquaintance/nemesis Penny (Ariel Winter) from creating a timeline paradox after Sherman steals Mr. Peabody’s “way back” machine (which looks a lot like the time machine from last November’s Free Birds, though it may have been they who copied this…) in an attempt to prove that he wasn’t lying when he claimed he spoke to President George Washington.
Because of my unfamiliarity with the original cartoon, color me shocked when I found out that Sherman was actually Mr. Peabody’s adopted son. Putting aside the fact that nobody at all (not even the historical figures) are bothered by a talking dog, much less one with an adopted human son, I was able to enjoy the absurdity of the situation because the characters all have their own unique qualities.
It’s still a rather eerie situation, but writer Craig Wright and director Jay Ward give the characters an interesting father/son dynamic that feels realistic. All Mr. Peabody wants is to protect Sherman from being unwanted, giving him a life that Mr. Peabody himself was never given the chance to have. I mean, what parent doesn’t want that for their child? But no matter how much love and compassion holds these characters together, it only skims the surface of what they filmmakers could have explored.
In one early scene that helps set up the main plot, Penny bullies Sherman by calling him a dog and throwing his sandwich across the cafeteria so he can fetch it. The scene sets up a strong foundation for teaching kids to be kind and tolerant toward those who may be different. However, this entire concept is mostly set aside in favor of lighter fare, avoiding any real or emotional moments that might reinforce the idea of respecting and accepting others for who they are.
Now I’m not saying the movie had to be some boring, preachy movie-of-the-week, but to embed these lessons within the laughs and the joy and the color of the characters and the situations would have gone a long way. In fact, the final sequence of the film does a good job of bringing closure to this theme, however, because it was left as mainly a side note to the cartoonish antics of the mostly one-note supporting characters, it doesn’t have the same amount of significance that it could have had.
Another bit of a lost opportunity was in the historical moments themselves. Most of the sequences are good in their own quirky way, and there are quite a few laughs represented within the different eras. However, I think I would have liked it somewhat more had they spent just a little more time on developing the historical aspects of each event rather than focusing on the silly and, to a point, ridiculous nature of the historical characters.
Again, this doesn’t mean they had to be historically accurate, or give some long lecture about the history of an event, but to have more subtle dialogue and sequences within the framework that was delivered would have bolstered and strengthened the foundation of the film. The opening sequence, for example, does deliver some fun, interesting tidbits on the French Revolution, while at the same time diving headfirst into the quirkiness. Some of the other sequences also have a little bit of this, but from the way it played, it felt a lot more like a cartoon version of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure than a unique way to have fun with history.
One of the things that might have helped is if the writer’s hadn’t tried to cram so much into one movie. The third act of the film, in fact, involves a rip in the space-time continuum that causes all of the historical players we met throughout the film to fall into our current time — an idea that I wish they had waited to use for the inevitable sequel. There was a lot of humor to be mined from the circumstances that erupt within these last twenty minutes, and include some of the funniest moments of the film (including a great Spartacus joke and some quick and clever wit right before the credits roll).
I don’t know; perhaps I’m asking far too much of the filmmakers and, in turn, the film’s core audience, but when you can do such an excellent job in presenting so much feeling and heart to Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s relationship, is asking for more depth on other levels wrong? One of the other themes that dominates the film is about finding the courage to let go and giving your child a chance to grow, to give them respect while at the same time, remaining a parent and keeping them safe. Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s relationship is tested throughout the film for this reason, which allows the two to learn a lot from one another, and in the end, become closer because of it.
Building on the themes that were set up early in the film and driving them throughout the different scenarios would have given the film the depth it needed to be great. Without it, it’s just another cartoon developed to entertain kids. But with a strong heart for family and friendship, as well as some decent time-travel explorations (and explanations), I think Mr. Peabody & Sherman finds a good, solid footing to build on for future adventures in the “way-back.”
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Need For Speed, Veronica Mars and The Single Mom’s Club. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.