Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)

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Mr. Peabody is the world's smartest dog, master of multiple trades, diplomatic liaison extraordinaire, and adopted father to the precocious Sherman.  They spend their days traveling through time in Mr. Peabody's WABAC machine, and get into trouble when the girl who bullies Sherman is lost in time.  Mr. Peabody and Sherman is directed by Rob Minkoff and stars Ty Burrell and Max Charles.

Not sardonic enoughMr. Peabody and Sherman has been in development for over a decade.  Director Rob Minkoff first thought about bringing the classic animated characters to cinemas at the start of the new millennium and the project has gone through different permutations ever since.  Passion, a love of the source material, and some dogged perseverance is required to stick with a single project for over a decade.  So for those qualities, I admire that Minkoff was able to get through those problems and bring two of my favorite animated characters to life.

The problem with development cycles that long is that the result is rarely good.  Minkoff looked to have the project in capable hands for a while with talents like Ty Burrell and Stephen Colbert attached to Mr. Peabody.  Then there was the matter of his credentials, which included co-directing the superb The Lion King in 1994.  But then there's the matter of Minkoff's other work, Stuart Little, The Haunted Mansion, The Forbidden Kingdom, all films that aim for the lowest hurdle of entertainment and clear it with subdued expectations.

This is not what I wanted for the beautifully dry Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, but the long development cycle has drained the resulting film of what little personality it could have possessed.  Instead we are faced with a dry, but not witty, bright, but not energetic, and short, but not well-paced, animated adventure that has only one image worth a chuckle.  Worst of all, those delightful puns that ended each of Mr. Peabody and Sherman's adventures have been reduced to sitcom one-liners.  Such a travesty.

One element that is true to the original stories, Mr. Peabody is a master swordsman, though the increased animation budget does not make his swordplay more fun to watch.

One element that is true to the original stories, Mr. Peabody is a master swordsman.  The increased animation budget does not make his swordplay more fun to watch.

Some of the difficulty in adapting Mr. Peabody's adventures to cinemas is that the original shorts do not lend themselves well to the grand visuals animated features have become.  The animation was always charmingly low-budget with very simple movements and relied heavily on the humor and intelligence of the scripts to carry the stories.  The problems with Mr. Peabody start here, as the old dry humor is inserted with awkward asides to the audience with each pun from Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) followed quickly by Sherman (Max Charles) saying that he, "Doesn't get it."

This sums up Mr. Peabody's problems well.  Dry humor is next to whizz bang action set pieces, then broad humor next to quieter character beats.  A new variation of the character could have functioned in this format, and to Mr. Peabody's credit screenwriter Craig Wright does try to recast him as a jet-setting dog of all trades, but there's little consistency with the humor or character development.  Minkoff and Wright's approach might have worked if the film was funny at all, but I smiled exactly once at a grotesque artificial baby Leonardo DaVinci (Stanley Tucci) built during the Renaissance.  The rest of the time I sat there is near total-silence as set-pieces and jokes fell completely flat.

Sherman is saddled with a combination bully / love interest befitting his age that adds nothing to the film outside a problem to kick start the plot.

Sherman is saddled with a combination bully / love interest, pictured here with Mr. Peabody, befitting his age that adds nothing to the film outside a problem to kick start the plot.

The original stories and their puns served a dual-purpose.  Puns are great, Mr. Peabody's delivery was impeccably droll, but also they served as a fun little commentary on history.  What we remember and record is only part of how it actually happened.  Sure, it didn't happen the way that the stories presented, but Mr. Peabody seems set to explore this path when he explains what an apocryphal story is to his classmates and how George Washington didn't really chop down that cherry tree.  So when the rest of Mr. Peabody devolves into broad and nearly insulting caricatures of different cultures it misses a huge opportunity to merge entertainment and education and instead goes for semi-vaudeville.

The worst thing about Mr. Peabody is that it's not a terrible film, just wholly unmemorable as "competent" is the nicest thing I can say about it.  So I grew more bored as Mr. Peabody launched into another display of his skill set or Sherman stared out at the audience with that dumb grin while he struggles to understand what's going on.  Burrell, Charles, and all the other voice actors do well enough with their roles, but again there's nothing memorable about their characters or their performances with even the dependable Patrick Warburton failing to make an impact.

I know it doesn't have the greatest reputation, but Mr. Peabody's old show companions Rocky and Bullwinkle had a better outing in 2000 as their film embraced the weird cartoon surroundings and did not apologize or explain the pun-filled humor.  These properties aren't made into films without some nostalgia tugging away, but The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle understood what made the shows work in a way Mr. Sherman only makes a cursory glance at.  If nothing else, I'm happy to report that the original Mr. Peabody stories are hilarious (on Shakespeare's arrest - "...he was not Bard of Avon, he was barred in Avon"), and will wash this disappointment away in a hurry.

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Tail - Mister PeabodyMr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)

Directed by Rob Minkoff.
Screenplay written by Craig Wright.
Starring Ty Burrell, Max Charles, and Ariel Winter.

Posted by Andrew

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