It would be charitable to say that the works of Jay Ward have had a spotty history of Hollywood adaptation. The first and most successful of the bunch was George of the Jungle in 1997, though I’m admittedly biased toward such a huge cinematic staple of my childhood. In any case, the film did well enough that it spawned a DTV sequel that of course went nowhere. It also led Hollywood to cast Brendan Fraser as the titular lead in another Jay Ward adaptation — Dudley Do-Right — that coated multiplexes with noxious fumes before it was even released.
Only a year later, Hollywood took on Ward’s most famous creations. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle was released in 2000 and has since become known as the film that should have ended Robert DeNiro’s career.
Flash forward fourteen years. Hollywood is still cranking out kid-friendly adaptations of old cartoons (see: The ongoing franchises spawned from Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs), and there hasn’t been a Jay Ward adaptation within the target demographic’s lifetime. Plus, DreamWorks is riding high after the franchises of Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Croods, some entries of which actually got Oscar nominations.
So here’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which — being a completely animated feature — already has an advantage over most of its aforementioned peers. Even so, I was skeptical of this picture. The ads had some wretched dog puns, the trailers showed some pitifully broad humor, and the source material doesn’t exactly lend itself to adaptation.
Granted, it’s been a while since I last sat in front of the TV watching my old Rocky and Bullwinkle VHS tapes (yeah, that’s how long it’s been). But to my memory, “Peabody’s Improbable History” was structured as a series of short sketches instead of an overarching narrative. Case in point: The WABAC was only shown as a door surrounded by computers, and we never saw how our protagonists got back to their own time. Moreover, the conflict generally had nothing to do with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, leaving our “heroes” to sort of nudge the week’s historical figure to where they needed to be.
By all appearances, this is one of those movies that should never have worked. Yet the reviews were generally favorable, so I decided to give it a shot.
First of all, the humor wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been led to believe. The vast majority of the film’s humor revolves around groan-worthy puns and historical jokes that show a complete lack of research. Considering that these were both staples of the source material, that’s all well and good. In fact, the humor is actually quite smart in places, with some neat geek-friendly in-jokes here and there. There’s the occasional bit of juvenile comedy, sure, but it’s kept minimal enough that I don’t hold it against the film too badly. It also helps that Peabody is on hand to lampshade the cruder moments. Speaking of which, aside from a couple of groaner dog jokes in the film’s opening moments, the dog-related puns are usually meant to be less funny than thematically relevant. But I’ll get back to that.
On another note, I should mention that not all of the historical jokes work. Early on, for example, Sherman points out that the story about George Washington and the cherry tree was purely fictional. This just after we see a Marie Antoinette who’s obsessed with gorging on cake, and before we meet a Leonardo Da Vinci who actually built his inventions. I found it absolutely ludicrous that a historical fallacy is pointed out in a film that’s built on historical fallacies. And I realize that this may sound like a nitpick, except that the whole bit with George Washington actually turns out to be a huge plot point. But that’s all I have to say about that.
By far the film’s strongest point is its animation. The character designs are appropriately humorous, the movements are superbly fluid, and the lighting effects are dazzling. This does a lot to help the film’s action sequences, which are exhilarating and creatively staged throughout. Naturally, many of the action sequences involve the WABAC, which has been reimagined as a flying machine shaped like a giant red ball. It’s a significant liberty taken with the source material, but as I alluded to before, the film was never going to work unless we actually saw how Peabody and Sherman travel from one point in time to another. I should also add that the WABAC was given a cloaking feature that looked great and solved quite a few plot holes.
And what of the story itself? Well, though the film may not be an origin story, we are given a bit of information about where Peabody and Sherman (respectively voiced here by Ty Burrell and Max Charles) came from and how they came to be together. At first, it works out great. We see that Peabody started out as a very neglected pup, because of course no canine or human child knew what to do with a dog who pointed out how stupid it is to play fetch. And then, after single-handedly (or paw or whatever) changing the world, Peabody stumbles onto Sherman, an abandoned child from places unknown.
Out of sympathy for another young misfit in desperate need of a loving home, the dog (who, remember, is a Nobel laureate with countless degrees and inventions already under his belt) adopts the boy. As for Sherman, this is a seven-year-old boy who’s been travelling through time, meeting the greatest figures in history with his genius adoptive father. So when he shows up for the first day of class, of course he acts like a socially awkward know-it-all. These details are brief enough that they don’t drag down the story, but they’re enough to give these characters and their relationship some substantial depth. Good work.
(Side note: As I recall, it was never exactly specified in the original cartoon what Peabody and Sherman were to each other. It seemed more like a typical pet-and-master situation in reverse than anything else. Again, the filmmakers totally made the right call by changing this aspect in adaptation.)
Unfortunately, things start to go downhill from here.
See, it bears remembering that this film is about a dog (albeit an impossibly brilliant dog) who’s been given legal custody of a human child. It stands to reason that there might be some who don’t approve of that arrangement. Thus we have Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney, who’s clearly reached the point in her career when she’s out of fucks to give), a social services worker who’s looking for any chance to take Sherman away. She’s a completely two-dimensional villain, so shrill and annoying that she’s not even any fun to hate.
It certainly doesn’t help that Grunion is a character who’s actions are determined more by plot than any credible motivation. In fact, the same could be said of Mr. Peterson (Stephen Colbert), who resolutely detests Peabody until he doesn’t. Come to think of it, aside from Peabody and Sherman, everyone else in this movie is more like a walking punchline or a plot device than an honest-to-God character. And by far the best example of this is Penny.
At various points throughout the movie, Penny (Ariel Winter) is the bully, the love interest, the damsel in distress, and the pain in the ass who creates problems for our heroes to fix. She is anything and everything the plot needs her to be, except when the plot needs her to do something that’s actually helpful. In that case, she’s nothing but dead weight. Her only real use is in challenging Sherman for the purpose of exploring the film’s themes, but that raises a whole host of other problems.
During her “bully” phase, Penny says that because Sherman is being raised by a dog, then Sherman must be a dog as well. Come to think of it, the whole “adoptive” angle could work as a subtle examination of being raised in any adoptive family (particularly with gay or interracial parents) if you’d care to read into that, but I digress. The point being that as the film goes on, the film compares Sherman to a dog in that he immediately does whatever Peabody says. Until later on, when the film spins it around to say that he’s loyal and caring to the bitter end. The idea in itself isn’t bad, but the delivery is way too hokey and ham-fisted to work.
More importantly, the film tries to play the “overprotective parent” angle. Yes, the film tries to portray Peabody as a dad who can’t let go of his kid, and Sherman as a boy completely incapable of handling himself. This was quite possibly the stupidest thing the movie could possibly have done. For one thing, it’s lazy. This theme has been done so many times by so many better family movies that it’s become a cliche.
More importantly, this theme doesn’t make the least bit of sense in context. Sherman has personally witnessed wars and battles. He’s met the greatest military leaders the world has ever known. For God’s sake, we actually see Peabody and Sherman fight their way out of the French Revolution in the opening scenes. And we’re supposed to believe that Peabody is some overprotective parent who doesn’t let his son go anywhere or do anything dangerous? We’re supposed to think that Sherman is completely helpless after everything he’s done and learned? I’m sorry, no. There’s just no way. Furthermore, the whole plot is more or less built on the idea that Sherman is an idiot. I don’t expect him to be a boy genius, I certainly wouldn’t expect him to be as smart as Peabody, and of course all bets are off when it comes to a girl who looks at him twice. Still, I refuse to believe that a boy who was raised by some of history’s greatest thinkers could be so consistently incompetent.
Last but not least, there’s the time travel element. It goes without saying that any narrative involving time travel is going to be complex, which doesn’t exactly mesh well with the “kids’ film” genre. Matters are naturally simplified by way of technobabble and hand-waving, to mixed results. On the one hand, I can forgive glossing over certain incomprehensible plot points, and heaven knows we’re not exactly dealing with a movie that’s trying to be smart about it. On the other hand, when the rules are so loosely defined and the proceedings are so void of logic, it means that a lot of moments are going to feel unearned.
With all of that said, it bears repeating that Mr. Peabody and Sherman doesn’t suck. It’s funny, it’s energetic, it’s superbly animated, and some very smart changes were made to the source material without rendering the final product unrecognizable. The film only suffers from some lazy plotting and muddled attempts at thematic content, which suggests that it was just a few screenplay polishes away from being something truly special.
I have a very hard time recommending this while the far superior Lego Movie is still in theaters. Still, if you should somehow find yourself in need of some other movie to take your kids to, I’m sure you’ll have a good time with this one.
P.S. Be warned that the film is preceded by an animated short, apparently to try and get in on the Oscar love that Disney and Pixar have been getting. I won’t go into detail, except to say that I wouldn’t bet on any nominations next year.