(mild spoilers; not a straight movie summary, but spoilers will be marked)
Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the latest 2014 Dreamworks picture, had a charming movie trailer. Although I hadn’t made plans to watch the movie, I didn’t mind picking it above the others last Saturday when faced with the choice.
It’s hard to really say if how much I enjoyed or didn’t enjoy parts of Mr. Peabody & Sherman was due to the fact that I wasn’t the target audience, or the movie itself. Overall it is what it appears to be: a classically humorous adventure of parodied historical events, starring a genius dog father, his naive and nerdy human son, and the pretty-but-mean female classmate to egg him on. There were many moments I was laughing, both from the silly yet erudite references and puns Mr. Peabody throws around to keep the parents entertained, and the cartoony action humor for the kids. I ended up being rather fond of it, even given the parts that fell a little flat on my twenty-one year old standards.
In most cases, I readily enjoy most animated and Dreamworks films. I’m a huge fan of cartoons and loved Rise of the Guardians, How to Tame a Dragon, etc. This movie, however, went along a less modern vein. Not to say it was dumbed down to exclusively be a child’s film, but it was simplistic in its telling and themes with rather basic tropes.
I had no idea that the origins came from the 1959 Jay Ward’s “Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends” animation, and it retains the cute premise of a genius dog and his adopted son Sherman’s adventures in time travel. Each episode would go to an era of history so that learning about it would be fun. To be fair, sticking with the origins, it’s no surprise the jokes and dilemmas stuck with the classic style and did not really delve into modern references or speech that we have come to expect from most films.
(And they had even showed up in the Simpsons!)
Both the characters of Mr. Peabody, Sherman and Penny were played out pretty well throughout the film. They were three-dimensional and believable, even Mr. Peabody’s role as a father in Sherman’s life. No matter what manner of trouble Sherman happened to get himself into, Mr. Peabody showed loving concern and ready forgiveness in order to save him. Still, he holds his own insecurities as a dog to an adopted human when Sherman gets teased by Penny for being a “dog too.”
The main themes of the movie, then, are father/son relationships (being proud of being adopted and being an obedient son), and the fun of learning history via time-traveling in the WABAC (wayback) machine.
One of the funniest parts of the film is of course, the reverse-relationship of Mr. Peabody’s lofty genius, and Sherman as his enthusiastic sidekick. For once, the dog, Mr. Peabody is basically the main character, hence the reason his name is first in a title that we’re used to reading the other way in terms of syllables.
Voice acting for all of the parts were appropriately over-the-top, with Mr. Peabody’s delightfully overly scholarly language (spoiler: my favorite line has to be the “I have a deep regard for you too, Sherman.”) and foreign accents from the historical figures (though not all – the Romans apparently spoke jock). Animation too, was a treat to watch. Dialogue, action scenarios (there was actually a pretty minimal amount of dancing around or Despicable Me style blatantly slapstick scenes – and they didn’t leave you feeling embarrassed about watching a kid’s movie), characterizations were all fine – there was nothing wrong with the film, per se, it just sort of stays safely within the “good laugh and cute story” zone of the children’s movie.
The film threw them together through all of the obvious historical pitstops: The French Revolution, Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance’s Leonardo Da Vinci, and the Trojan War.
What seems a little off about a movie meant to make out how fun history can be is that in the very beginning, Sherman calls Penny out for repeating the “apocryphal” about George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. Yet, the movie included tons of similarly false stories, and introduced other ones for the sake of hilarity. Marie Antoinette was satirized all around the falsely attributed quote, “Let them eat cake.” The Trojan War threw in Oedipus to make a relative joke, and portrayed them all as mindless jocks, even Odysseus. All of this was admittedly done up in an obviously ridiculous way, combined with Mr. Peabody’s made-up inserts like his close friendship with Da Vinci and his authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.
Out of all of the intentionally ridiculous quotes, my physics-major boyfriend was the most upset over (slightly spoilerish?) Einstein saying (not word by word quote) “When objects travel close to the speed of light, gravity increases.” Okay, so maybe the situation of rectifying a rupture in the fabric of space-time doesn’t exactly call for a realistic solution, but this is an absolute lie in comparison the all of the other parodies. It did also come at a moment where things were at its most serious, after all of the other scientists like Newton unhelpfully gave their actual theories. So considering the placement and way it was said, I wouldn’t be surprised at the less scientifically-inclined adults buying it.
When Penny Peterson enters the picture, she is the popular and poison-tongued blonde princess, spoiled by her parents. The image of the petite, blue-eyed blonde-haired girl in a pink dress is a little too tired out when placed next to Sherman’s glasses and ginger hair. But even that quickly changes as Penny opens up a lot and is shown to be just another kid that wants to adventure through time. Penny drops the act of being the typical trouble-maker, and though she does goad Sherman into risks and disobeying Mr. Peabody, she isn’t portrayed as spiteful but just as naive and curious. So while “the popular girl gets with the nerdy kid” is kind of how it looks like, Penny really is just a friend and ally to Sherman. Nonetheless, Penny is the female side-character that meets most expectations of her role as an instigator and supporter to Sherman’s own personal shame of being laughed at as a “dog”. Although Penny is a full character in her own right, the ending and her role in it seems a little unsatisfying.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is entertaining, but unfortunately all of these elements do make it kind of a one-time view movie. It’s great to bring children too, as all of the children responded enthusiastically at all the right parts of the movie, and the flow in plot, action, and messages were all on point. Adults too can find plenty to laugh at, since the puns written are all . However, it doesn’t touch the more deep and sensitive issues or feelings by challenging the audience to really sympathize with very unique characters, nor does it break ground in any aspect. Unlike How to Tame a Dragon’s emotional conflicts of Hiccup’s fear and hatred of killing versus his rejection by his father, the lessons for the target audience of Mr. Peabody & Sherman is decidedly grade-school. It follows the tropes and cartoon formulas to achieve its goals, nothing more and nothing less. Do watch it though, if you like face-palming and shaking your head but nevertheless chortling like both your ten-year-old and forty-year-old* selves. (*rather arbitrary age for a parent with a sense of the old cartoon humor)