Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Dir. Rob Minkoff

2.5 out of 5

Family films are essentially created to serve two masters, trying to strike the right balance between being an entertaining, easily digestible experience for children and something that winks enough at the parents in the audience to keep them from getting bored.  Family films based on a nostalgic pop-culture property like Mr. Peabody and Sherman - a new computer-animated movie based on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show segments featuring a time-traveling dog and his adopted son - take this another step further, trying to honor the spirit of the source material while updating it for a brand new audience.

This tension is felt immediately in Mr. Peabody and Sherman, which opens with the canine genius Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) explaining how he worked his way from humble origins to become an intellectual giant, before taking on the challenge of raising a human child named Sherman (Max Charles).  Together they go on adventures in the WABAC - pronounced "way back" - Machine, a time-traveling vehicle of Peabody's invention.  The basics are barely established before the duo gets zapped back to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror for a madcap action sequence that touches all the zany bases of the original cartoon.

Of course, if this was the original cartoon, the adventure probably probably would have ended there.  But Mr. Peabody and Sherman has 85 more minutes to fill, so director Rob Minkoff bides his time by introducing Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), a classmate of Sherman's who bullies him on the basis of his unorthodox parentage.  When Peabody hears of this, he demands that the two make amends, inviting Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for a dinner party.  It isn't long before the kids get into the WABAC, forcing Mr. Peabody to give chase and facilitate one rescue after another in a wild journey through space and time.

While the historical segments (there are also layovers in Renaissance Italy and during the Trojan War) generally do a good job of capturing the lightheartedly pedantic tone of the series, the movie is pitched overall as a family melodrama, which is slightly awkward given Mr. Peabody's dispassionate personality.  With a single notable exception - Peabody reminiscing about Sherman's early childhood in an affecting montage set to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" - it falls to the kids to deliver the warm fuzzies.  However, the filmmakers complicate this with constant creepy hints at a romantic tension between two seven-year-olds.  

Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a prime example of a movie trying hard to appeal to all segments of the audience, forgetting that consensus is typically the death of creativity.  Alternately clever, sappy, zany, and bland, the film rarely pauses long enough to develop its own unique voice, retreating into the safety of the standard CGI family film blueprint.  The visuals are richly detailed but also suffer from a lack of originality, eschewing the cartoon's cacophony of oddly angular lines for Dreamworks Animation's stifling house style.  Mr. Peabody and Sherman's climax perfectly encapsulates its "something for everyone" mission, a procession of cameos and time travel hibbety-gibbety that ultimately has little bearing on its predicable story arc.  But perhaps it's all part of the film's faintly educational message: when it comes to calibrating animated movies for maximum audience appeal, history truly does repeat itself.

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