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Non-Review Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is solid family entertainment. Too scattershot and inconsistent to really rank among the best of the Dreamworks animated feature films, it does benefit from an endearing energy and momentum – as well as a charming central performance from Ty Burrell as the eponymous super-inventor dog genius. It’s perfectly inoffensive fun that manages to get quite a few laughs, even if it doesn’t tug the heart strings quite as well as it might want to.

A dog and his boy...

A dog and his boy…

Struggling to extend what had been a five-minute-at-most segment on The Rocky & Bulwinkle Show into a feature-length movie, Mr. Peabody & Sherman compensates by grafting in its own over-arching narrative to the duo’s episodic adventures. So we get a story about the relationship that exists between Mr. Peabody and his adopted son. “If a boy can adopt a dog,” a judge helpfully explains, “I see no reason why a dog cannot adopt a boy.”

The relationship between Peabody and Sherman is most effective when the movie doesn’t make a big deal of it – in the interactions of the duo while adventuring in time and space, Peabody’s genuine and smothering concern for his young son and even in conversations at bed time. Burrell’s performance is a large part of this, and it’s hard not to smile just a little bit when Peabody responds to Sherman’s declaration of love with a rather considered “I have a deep regard for you too.”

A razor sharp wit...

A razor sharp wit…

The movie is less successful when trying to mine that relationship for dramatic tension. We get a plot about child services plotting to take Sherman away from his adoptive father, and Sherman’s obligatory rebellion against his father’s rather heavy-handed style of parenting. These are familiar plot beats, and they are the most simplistic manner possible to mine dramatic tension from the relationship between Peabody and Sherman. Given the simplicity of the movie itself – which is primarily composed of episodic run-arounds – the over-arcing plot connecting it all really needs to be a bit tighter, giving us a reason to care.

To be fair, the movie’s simplicity works quite well as a piece of light-hearted family entertainment. Befitting an adaptation of a five-minute segment of a larger show, the movie is structured as a series of extended action sequences that are only loosely connected by the most tenuous of plots. Really, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is an excuse to take the two adventures to Revolutionary France, Ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy and Troy for the purposes of having wacky adventures. And those segments work very well – even if one drags (for me it was Renaissance Italy), there’ll be another along in about ten minutes.

Painting a pretty picture...

Painting a pretty picture…

The humour is cast wonderfully broad. There’s a lot to like in the film’s gags. Peabody’s wordplay is delightfully cheesy (“if at first you don’t succeed, try Troy again!”) but there’s also suitably diverse slapstick jokes, pop culture references, history in-jokes and even the occasional juvenile bodily-fuction gag. It works quite well. Much like the film’s episodic structure, it’s light enough there there’ll always be something to enjoy in a few minutes.

Perhaps due to the lean nature of the source material, it’s interesting how liberally Mr. Peabody & Sherman borrows from another classic time-travel franchise. While Burrell’s interpretation of Mr. Peabody owes an obvious debt to Bill Scott’s classic work with the character, there’s a sense that he might also have been inspired by David Tennant’s role on Doctor Who. There’s the same sense of a swashbuckling unflappable genius time-travelling adventurer treating history as his own private amusement park, dropping in occasionally on celebrity guest stars.

A high-energy adventure...

A high-energy adventure…

The Wayback Machine has had a bit of a revamp as well. No longer a simple machine the duo walk into and out of, it ventures through a time vortex that seems eerily familiar. The movie even bears a superficial similarity to the structure of the Davies-era seasons of Doctor Who. It opens with a bunch of light adventures that get a little bit heavier and more emotionally invested, before building to a grand finalé where the very fabric of the universe seems to be at stake. (Of course, the climax to Mr. Peabody & Sherman also feels a little bit like the last act of Ghostbusters, minus the giant wandering marshmellow man.)

Eagle-eyed viewers will even notice a few similarities to Steven Moffat’s recent interpretation of the show. Peabody’s deductive reasoning is displayed in a manner quite similar to the Eleventh Doctor’s and the version seen in Sherlock. Our hero travels through time and space while trying to navigate the romantic entanglements of his companions. Peabody even refers to knowledge of future events as “spoilers”, a recurring Moffat motif of playing with the medium as a metaphor. (The climax is even built on a plot point quite similar to the events of Paul Cornell’s Father Day, right down to the idea that touching your past self is a bad idea.)

How will they Phar(oah)?

How will they Phar(oah)?

Again, all this makes a great deal of sense from a storytelling point of view – these are time travelling genius tropes that have been demonstrated to work well through years of effort, and they don’t treat the audience as idiots. Sure, the movie has a somewhat hazy techno-babble solution, but it doesn’t feel the need to condescend to its young audience about the mechanics of its time travel rules.

The animation style is solid. It’s very much animated in the Dreamworks house style, with an endearing softness to the characters. However, there are occasional flashes of brilliance. For example, during one sequence with Benjamin Franklin, the sky is very clearly animated as a two-dimensional surface. It’s a nice way of evoking the classic (and somewhat limited) animation style of the original shorts, and the whole film appears endearingly (and unashamedly) cartoonish.

Gone to the dog's?

Gone to the dog’s?

Ty Burrell’s lead performance really sells the film. Burrell’s narration to the camera is delivered in the same sort of wry self-aware manner that Bill Scott used during the original shorts, and his comic timing is absolutely wonderful. Burrell’s delivery is what consistently gets the best laughs of the film, and he does a lot to add emotional resonance to the story. In many ways, Burrell’s performance is more effective than the script at conveying exactly how Mr. Peabody feels about his adopted son.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman is unlikely to rank among the truly great Dreamworks animated films. It’s just not a film design to carry a significant amount of emotional heft, especially not in the way that it tries to be. It works best as a light and zany adventure, moving quickly along and checking off various a list of time travel adventure tropes as it goes, carried by the charisma of its leading voice actor.

No time like the past...

No time like the past…

The movie’s too scattershot for any of the central emotional themes to hit home, with the character of Penny Peterson’s arc feeling particularly underdeveloped. Still, on its own merits, it’s a suitably entertaining adventure.

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