Midlife Crisis Crossover calls Mr. Peabody & Sherman the greatest adaptation of a Jay Ward Productions cartoon in cinematic history!
Seriously, consider the competition: 2000’s live-action The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, which had precisely one (1) funny joke that I recall with traumatized clarity to this day; Brendan Fraser as Disney’s George of the Jungle, which was a merchandising showcase disguised as kiddie slapstick farce; and Brendan Fraser again in Dudley Do-Right, which had no reason to live. Thankfully Hollywood came to its senses and refrained from giving us Brendan Fraser as Tom Slick, Aesop’s annoying son, and Super-Chicken’s sidekick Fred.
DreamWorks neatly sidestepped any more Fraser pain by taking the CG-animation route and barring him from participation. In another risky deviation from the formula of the other three films, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and his crew also chose to make their film funny. I applaud this bold, non-conformist stratagem.
Short version for the unfamiliar: For those lacking in a strong childhood diet of classic cartoons: Mr. Peabody (voice of Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) was an advanced intellectual decades before Sherlock made intellectuals cool, who happened to be a dog but didn’t let it slow him down. Sherman (Max Charles from ABC’s The Neighbors) is the precocious boy he adopted, because that’s how the animated 1960s rolled. Together they traveled through time in every episode using Peabody’s invention, the WABAC Machine. (The acronym stands for “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” in some other language, probably.) The disparate duo spent their free time correcting moments in world history that should have been fixed points but were in danger of going awry. Most escapades began with “Peabody here!” and ended with a bad pun guaranteed to inducing laughter, recoil, or both.
The updated version downplays the need for repairing singular historic events, lists time travel as merely one of Peabody’s myriad interests, and expands on their home life outside the WABAC. For the sake of a plot structure upon which to hang a string of time-travel incidents, Our Heroes create their own mess to clean up when Sherman takes a ride on the WABAC with a cute bully named Penny (Ariel Winter, Burrell’s Modern Family daughter) and hilarity ensues. Sightseeing stops include ancient Egypt, the Trojan War, the French Revolution, and da Vinci’s house.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Among the most easily identifiable voices: Stephen Colbert as Penny’s Colbertesque dad; Patrick Warburton in his trademark role as a musclebound goofball; SafeAuto spokesman Dennis Haysbert in a cameo as a judge with convenient logic issues. Other big names include Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) as da Vinci; TV’s Allison Janney as a bullying social worker who threatens Our Heroes’ adoption setup; Stephen Tobolowsky (Groundhog Day) as the principal at Sherman’s school; and a few scant moments of Mel Brooks as Einstein.
Nitpicking? The original shorts were so simple in structure (they go back in time; they fix things; all is well and there’s a pun; The End) that I couldn’t believe how much time the filmmakers spent on reasoning their way through the question of “What if a smart dog adopted a baby human?”, justifying the scenario, exploring the consequences, brainstorming potential real-world complications, and devoting an inordinate amount of screen time to present-day sitcom rhythms. I didn’t come to the theater expecting Everybody Loves Doggy Daddy; I came to see our old friends travel in time, meet famous names, save the day, and drop awful puns like they’re finally back in style. Least favorite part of all this overthinking: Janney’s overbearing Child Protective Services rep as the biggest bad guy. CPS worked well as a second-tier antagonist in Lilo and Stitch, but here they’re an uncompromising, closed-minded, nanny-state machine that’s so utterly, humorlessly not Jay-Wardian.
As is normal for time travel stories, events as they’re experienced in linear order begin crisscrossing each other without regard for causality and retroactively making some previous events impossible to happen, which in turn nullifies everything that just happened to nullify those things in the first place. Or the second place. What I’m saying is that sooner or later the time travel consequences stop making sense if you bother to think about them. To the movie’s credit, we do see one major issue arise from the chronological mess, rather than a thorough sweeping of everything under rugs.
Fair warning for parents: a couple of subtle, technically off-color gags in the final half-hour will fly right over your smaller kids’ heads, but you may need to be prepared to explain why you’re laughing a lot more loudly than they are.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The morals of the story are simple enough. Bureaucracy doesn’t determine family. Kids can and should work to set aside their differences even with former enemies. Kids are their own individuals, not just photocopies of their parents. Science is cool, especially wacky time-travel science. Some historical anecdotes are just tall tales. And time travel rules are in place for a reason.
So did I like it or not? I expected a shallow, soulless, heavily commercialized, assembly-line reboot scraped together from the spoiled leftovers of Jimmy Neutron, Chicken Little, and Meet the Robinsons. The overused catchphrases in the trailer were a wide red flag to me. The heavier parts seemed out of place, as noted above. In general, to my relieved surprise, the movie gets Peabody and Sherman right. It works best when it keeps the time travel tongue-in-cheek like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and, of course, the original cartoons. The animation looks stylish and scintillating whenever the WABAC shunts into the space outside time, even though for a Jay Ward adaptation it didn’t need to be.
Best of all, the puns are back. That much-maligned comedy device, which filmmakers and recent generations have rejected except when trying to make other internet users groan, the art of the pun is embraced and relished here, exactly like the good ol’ days. Hate them if you must, but they were an integral part of Peabody’s toolbox. If you take away his bons mots and leave him with today’s punchline clichés as his only resort…well, if you ask me, Peabody doesn’t deserve to be stuck with that kind of doggerel.
How about those end credits? There’s a scene after the Mr. Sherman and Peabody end credits only if you count a three-second shot of squiggly, duotone Jay Ward versions of Our Heroes smiling and walking away from us. Not exactly a scene per se. Also noticed among the overlong but artfully decorated end credits:
* The names of every employee in every single DreamWorks department, from the guys who arrange TV rights to the several dozen members of the Consumer Products and Franchise Development department. Because they crave your accolades, too.
* A prominent screen credit for Ted Key, the cartoonist who created Peabody’s Improbable History. Creator credits are too often overlooked in many a big-screen adaptation, and it’s nice to see DreamWorks sticking to the high road here.