Dreamworks’ first offering for 2014, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is an action-packed animated comedy, about the adventures of Mr. Peabody an intellectual talking dog and his adopted human son. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is based on the characters from Peabody’s Improbable History segments of the 1960s animated television series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.
The film opens with an introduction by Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) about himself, a humorous short romp through how he was never adopted so he became the smartest being in the world, and Sherman (Max Charles), his human son.
Visiting different periods of time in history using the WABAC machine (pronounced as “wayback”), Mr. Peabody educates Sherman about Marie Antoinette, Leonardo da Vinci and a whole host of other historical characters through meeting them. Scarcely escaping from the uprising of the French Revolution using lightning-quick Sherlock-style deductions, Mr. Peabody narrowly avoids being beheaded as an abettor of Marie Antoinette and successfully rescues Sherman to travel back to the present.
Knowing nothing about the film before going to see it, I internally flinched when time-travel was introduced as this is the number one for me on Potential Plot-holes and Over-used Phrases. Sure enough there was the oft-said “Where are we going, Mr. Peabody?”, “Not ‘where’, Sherman, but ‘when’” that had me clutching the arm-rest with cringe from witin. I could possibly let it go, if it hadn’t have happened twice more throughout the film.
Having had many historical quests with Mr. Peabody in the WABAC machine, Sherman must go on a new adventure alone – his first day of school. The excitement for Sherman matches the inner turmoil for Mr. Peabody. It’s in their short exchange on their way to school that the real extent of his paternal instinct of Mr. Peabody takes over but in a wholly endearing manner that warmed my heart. Sherman’s historical knowledge provides him with a basis to excel at school. But it’s when correcting the teacher about Abraham Lincoln (because Sherman’s met the guy) that the ire of classmate Penny Petersen (Ariel Winter) is enraged. I did not like Penny Petersen, as everything about her from her heavily eyeliner’d eyes (what adult lets their seven year old anywhere near eye make-up?) to her perfectly curled hair irked me. My chagrin feelings rang true when Penny continually taunts Sherman during lunch about having a dog for a father, leading to Sherman biting Penny. This incident adequately sets the ball rolling for the rest of the film.
Following the escapades of a human/non-human relationship in an animated format is not a new one. There is the daily comic strip of Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, a boy and his very real anthropomorphic tiger, and their exploration of the world and comprehensive topics, such as philosophy and environmentalism. There is also the rapport of Stewie and Brian Griffin in the animated sitcom Family Guy, where their multi-faceted relationship has seen many changes to their characters throughout the series.
However, what sets Mr. Peabody & Sherman apart from those two is that their story has a deeper evolution. And this is purely through format of being a feature film, rather than being a focused one-off episode or a limited panelled comic strip. Within this, the screenwriting of Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money) tugged merrily at all of my emotions. Between the backstory of why Mr. Peabody was never adopted (alongside more regular dogs, he did non-dog things – reading philosophy books, for example) to the backstory of how Mr. Peabody met Sherman (Sherman was abandoned in an alleyway as a baby), I’m glad that I was the only one in the cinema.
To be a film for all-ages, there are many puns, slapstick funnies (there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene of Beethoven having a blast on Dance Dance Revolution to the tune of his Fifth Symphony) and visual gags. But, sometimes, this was at a relentless speed that detracted from the plot and occasionally left me confused. In a scene where Mr. Peabody, Sherman and Penny are inside the Trojan Horse with the Greeks, Agamemnon proudly exclaims that they will make the streets run red with the blood of their enemies. Woah there, ‘Memnon. This is a kids’ film. But when the Greeks do attack Trojans with swords held high, they simply knock them out in wildly different and entertaining ways.
I wasn’t expecting too much from Mr. Peabody & Sherman. Dreamworks has always been the underdog of the animation world against Disney and Pixar. With a great cast of voice actors and a glorious soundtrack by Danny Elfman, it can be slightly forgiven for its intermittently meandering script. And, given Dreamworks’ track record, I would not be surprised if there was a sequel.