MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN Movie Review
Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the big-screen adaptation of the Jay Ward-produced series that first appeared in the early ‘60s as part of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, arrives in multiplexes after a decade-long gestation. Rob Minkoff (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 1-2, The Lion King), signed on to direct Mr. Peabody & Sherman a decade ago, but bringing the eponymous character, a talking dog with a genius intellect and an indefatigable hunger for knowledge and experience, Sherman, his adopted son, and their time-traveling misadventures, proved to be a difficult proposition, no less because Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s television exploits lasted mere minutes of screentime before giving way to other animated programming. But with screenwriter Craig Wright as a central collaborator and the explicit approval of Tiffany Ward, Jay’s daughter and executor, Minkoff found the key to unlocking an engrossing, relatable, all-ages story.
Minkoff originally envisioned immediately dropping moviegoers into one of Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) and Sherman’s (Max Charles) time-traveling adventures, but test audiences convinced him to add an introductory scene mirroring Mr. Peabody’s first television appearance. Mr. Peabody breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, sharing his life story as a one-of-a-kind talking dog with a genius-level intellect, a lonely, if not exactly miserable, childhood due to his uniqueness, his near-meteoric rise to professional success as a do everything, know everything inventor, his decision to adopt – a decision given legal backing by a compassionate, open-minded judge – and his attempts to raise Sherman in his own image as an inquisitive, curious explorer of the world and ideas, exploration made literal thanks to Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine, a machine that allows Mr. Peabody and Sherman to travel through time, ostensibly to study history, often with near-disastrous results.
For all of their near misses, including a near-death experience during the French Revolution, Mr. Peabody and Sherman share a strong father-son bond. That bond begins to fade and with it Mr. Peabody’s confidence in his parenting skills (the central theme in the film, in case you’re wondering) when Sherman enters elementary school. Almost immediately, Sherman runs afoul of the school’s resident mean girl, Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), who in turn, causes all sorts of problems for Sherman and by extension, Mr. Peabody, when an openly hostile social worker, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), begins an investigation into Mr. Peabody’s fitness as a parent to Sherman.
That might sound like heavy subject matter for an ostensibly family-oriented film, but Minkoff and Wright handle with a light touch, in part by making Ms. Grunion the object (and target) of physical and verbal comedy, but mostly by turning Penny into the change/chaos agent needed to return Mr. Peabody and Sherman to their time-traveling heroic ways, first by journeying to ancient Egypt to save a member of the trio, and later to Florence, Italy where they encounter Leonardo Di Vinci, and back in time to ancient Greece and the war between the Greek city-states and soon-to-fall Troy. Along the way, Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s relationship frays and recovers, before heading into surprisingly complex territory story wise (for a family-oriented film).
For all of Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s comical, pun-filled adventures – all brilliantly realized and contextualized by DreamWorks Animation’s talented staff – it’s the intricate world building that really stands out in Mr. Peabody & Sherman. With David James as his production designer, Minkoff pays homage to the characters’ roots in mid-century America, specifically Mr. Peabody’s penthouse, an open-plan structure that a certain advertising executive from TV’s Mad Men would eagerly embrace. It’s not coincidental that Mr. Peabody proves himself a talented mixologist, plying Penny’s initially reluctant parents, Paul (Stephen Colbert) and Patty (Leslie Mann), with lubricants of the alcoholic kind. Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s city reflects a similar mid-century design aesthetic. Add to that 3D animation and a constantly moving camera – the better to see and experience Minkoff’s vision for the central characters world – and the result is rarely less – and often more – than a delight.