Cinema Siren finds herself in a quandary. The new 3D animated release Mr. Peabody & Sherman feels like both lots of fun and a big disappointment, right in the same 92 minutes.
The animation looks dated, but the voice actors do a great job. The characters span from entertaining to incredibly annoying, and the humor from witty to inane. In some ways, it captures the spirit of the wonderful cult original shorts, which were part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show produced and created by Jay Ward; it bites the pop culture hand that feeds it by reinventing relationships and how characters interact.
All this is to say, depending on who you are, some of you will love it, and some of you will hate it. Siren finds herself torn between yelling “Good dog!” and “Bad dog!”
Read on, dear sirenauts, to figure out for yourself if the dog genius and his boy will prove “pup-ular” with you, or as bland and tasteless as an over-chewed bone.
The film has a number of positive attributes. Ty Burrell as Mr. Peabody is spot on as the talking dog, bringing to mind the great Bill Scott, who worked with Jay Ward on the original show, both writing for the series and voicing characters, including both Bullwinkle and Mr. Peabody.
Robert Downey Jr was initially attached, but was replaced by Burrell in 2012. The fact that Burrell is able to moderate his vocal tone to detach himself from being recognized as bumbling Phil Dunphy on Modern Family proves he was ultimately the wiser choice.
Allison Janney has always proved herself great at any role, and as the terrifying Mrs. Grunion, she entertains, as do Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks and Patrick Warbuton (essentially playing an Agamemnon that looks and acts just like Kronk from Emperor’s New Groove) in their vocal cameos as famous historical figures.
The adventures are a romp through time, from Egypt to France’s reign of terror to renaissance Italy. There are scenes that take advantage of great backgrounds and stylized architecture, which make interesting use of perspective and 3D. Certainly there are moments where the audience gets caught up in the fun and excitement.
Mr. Peabody himself is amusing, with his humor and scientific matter of fact attitude in the midst of consistently performing spectacular feats is in keeping with the original ’60s cartoon, and is oddly charming. His love of silly puns is intact. The audience will believe his canine heart is in the right place. His relationship with Sherman and Sherman’s with his new little friend, is altogether another matter.
Here is where big messes are made, and you can audibly hear me rolling up the newspaper to chase the offending film out of the movie house. Firstly, unlike the original, the choice was made to focus the story on Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s father-son relationship. In the original TV show, Sherman was more of a pet than a son.
Their adventures in time tended to make history better, not mess it up. There is a sentimentality present that proves to be quite off kilter with much of the humor. It will rile fans of the original for sure. Also, the character of Penny, Sherman’s new friend who talks him into using the WABAC machine without Peabody’s permission, is little more than a harpie in training. She is not representative of a complicated female child.
Instead she comes off as a mix of bully, brat and know-it-all. It is hoped adult women and young girls alike will look askance at her choices, and will likely find her character off-putting and disappointing, so much so that an arc showing a significant change from that way of being is simply not enough to allow us to warm to her in the end.
There are definitely some mixed messages to kids. Obeying or respecting their parents is not automatically in contradiction with having fun or learning self reliance.
The animation is clearly meant to harken back to the blocky thickly inked mid-century style Jay Ward and his artists designed. While the environments are visually compelling, something at which the animation department at DreamWorks has excelled for some time, the characters themselves look dated in the wrong way, as if they picked themselves up off the cutting room floor of Disney’s The Incredibles.
Nuanced facial expressions, which we who have seen Frozen have recently learned are possible in computer animation, are nowhere to be found. It is a tough trick visually to be intentionally retro and have the audience aware it is a choice, not a shortcoming.
Bear in mind, movie lovers, all these thoughts and opinions, while valid, come from a place of being an animation expert and a steadfastly loyal fan to the original TV show. Those without such bias who are just looking for a bit of cartoon fun with a sentimental father-son story thrown in might enjoy it very much.
It is, after all, helmed by Rob Minkoff, one of the directors of The Lion King, so how could he possibly avoid using that plot point? At very least, if you bring kids, they may walk away with a new curiosity about history…