Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Last weekend, my friend sent me a text saying “Hey, let’s go see ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It’s playing in 3-D at Varsity at 5:05 p.m.” These characters weren’t familiar to me; I hadn’t heard of the film. Apparently, I had seen a trailer for it prior to ‘The Lego Movie’, but it escaped my memory very quickly. Then, there’s the 3-D aspect, which I always dread (unfortunately, a 2-D version of the picture wasn’t playing at a convenient time for us). Then, I read the synopsis online only to discover that the movie’s two main characters were a time-traveling talking dog and his human son. My reply text was “O…k, if that’s what you want to see.”

I’m glad I went. I can’t comment on whether purists who know every episode of the circa 1960s television show will have a great time, but as a newbie who wasn’t in the least familiar with these characters or the premise, I found it to be an imperfect, but fast-moving, witty, consistently funny, and well-intentioned picture.

Like ‘The Lego Movie’, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ has a number of sight gags and pop-culture jokes that will ricochet off the heads of younger viewers only to have the adult audience members bursting with laugher.  One scene in particular had me laughing louder than anyone else in the theater, including the young ones – without spoiling it, be on the lookout for what Beethoven does when he finds himself in 2014.

Oh, and it has some terrific voice performances (which any successful animated comedy needs).  Ty Burrell (or Phil Dunphy from ‘Modern Family’) has the perfect line delivery; you know, for Earth’s lone talking dog and the planet’s smartest creature. His credentials: Harvard graduate, Nobel Prize winner, pun enthusiast, Olympic medalist, political advisor, master of every musical instrument, and language known to man. His greatest challenge, though, is being a father to his adopted human son, Sherman. He teaches Sherman about world history by traveling through a time machine he invented called the WABAC (pronounced “Way Back”, get it?). Together, they manage to meet everyone from Gandhi to Jackie Robinson. Does this sound like ‘Bill and Ted’ to you? I was reminded of those pictures. In any event, the best parts of  ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ are the encounters with these storied figures. 

Max Charles voices dorky 7-year-old Sherman, and Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) is Penny Peterson – she’s threatened by Sherman’s intellect and life experiences.  The two get into a fight at school; Mr. Peabody then arranges a dinner party to meet and smooth things over with Penny’s parents. Sherman tries to impress Penny by showing her the WABAC. Their time-tripping adventure results in a rip in the space-time continuum; and so, they must work together (alongside Mr. Peabody) to repair it.

I noticed all the characters have big heads and large eyes; I guess if you want to illustrate cartoonish facial expressions, um, a cartoon works best for this? Animated feature? You know what I mean. But, for a “large head” animated feature, the human characters don’t seem the least bit freaked out by a talking dog, and so the animation design doesn’t fully serve its purpose.

Because this is a family film, the recipe includes several drops of unabashed sentimentality. Part of the present-day plot involves a child services worker who is unable to accept that a dog (even one as brilliant as Mr. Peabody) is fit to parent a child. Mr. Peabody standing up for his parental rights can be seen as a testament to the increasing prominence of non-traditional family units in our real world. Sherman shows signs of rebelliousness; his genius father always calls the shots and takes care of everything; canine parents don’t seem to recognize the importance of their children’s independence (ahem, or human parents, ahem). I admire the fact that the movie didn’t hit me over the head with this message of family love; the preachyness is limited to a teary, short set of speeches towards the end. The focus is where it ought to be – on the father-son relationship; in this case, the father just happens to be a beagle.

The feature was directed by Ron Minkoff (‘The Lion King’). Now, ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ isn’t nearly as memorable as that picture. It isn’t even in the same league as the recent ‘The Lego Movie’, or ‘The Wind Rises’. But, it succeeds in what it sets out to do: it is a bright, gentle, funny, and good-natured picture.

As fun as the adventures were, they aren’t able to justify the in-your-face 3-D surcharge. Even with the limitations presented by the added dimension, the visuals are vibrant and richly detailed. And, I didn’t suffer a headache watching it (what a complement!). See it in 2-D if you can. QED.

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