Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"Mr. Peabody & Sherman": Inoffensive Barrel-Scraping

Now Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

Was anyone really asking for a Mr. Peabody movie?  Do kids these days even know who Mr. Peabody and Sherman are?  This has always seemed to me like a very odd choice of property to build a feature film around.  The original shorts were prone to witty humor more akin to a radio sketch than a feature length narrative, and the titular characters were little more than archetypes of the self-important brainiac and his bumbling assistant.  And yet, here we are, watching Hollywood scrape the bottom of the barrel for anything with an iota of brand recognition to package as an inevitable success animated picture.  So how did it turn out?  Eh, alright, I guess.

The word “inoffensive” springs to mind.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s anything outright “bad” about the film, but it’s just not a great or very ambitious one.  The film’s opening scenes play out like a modern version of its source material, fourth wall-breaking narration and all.  The way that historical figures are played with is also reminiscent of the whimsical feel of the shorts, but that’s about where the similarities end.  What follows after the opening scenes is a story about how Mr. Peabody, as Sherman’s adoptive parent, must fight to retain custody of Sherman after Sherman gets into a fight at school.  See, Child Protective Services is after Mr. Peabody because dogs shouldn’t be allowed to raise kids, and Sherman’s altercation with a school bully is the perfect excuse to take Sherman away.  This leads to Mr. Peabody inviting the bully’s family over for dinner, and after Sherman shows the bully, named Penny, the time machine and goes back in time, the trio embark on a time-hopping adventure.

The different time periods that the characters visit don’t so much have a connecting plot as they are convenient vignette setpieces for action spectacle, broken up by obligatory character development.  Peabody begins to realize he’s overprotective of Sherman, Sherman feels betrayed that Mr. Peabody didn’t tell him about Child Protective Services, and Penny… well, she’s the obligatory girl character and doesn’t get much characterization.  In fact, she starts out as a school bully, but has a pretty instant change of heart into a scrappy adventurer without much explanation.  Sherman also goes from hating her to falling in love with her at the drop of a hat (or mummified arm as the scene in question would have it.)  All in all, though, the film hits all the plot points it needs to in order to be coherent, but it’s not interested in being very original about it.

The film’s sense of humor is a little hit and miss, relying minimally on Peabody’s groan-worthy puns and instead relying on stretchy, cartoon slapstick that is sure to keep the target audience of seven-year-olds plenty entertained.  Amidst the flashy colors and action, however, there is some noticeable drops in animation quality at some points.  Sometimes characters move stiffly, and a few character models seem grossly disproportioned.  I’m sure it’s nothing the kids will notice, but I found it somewhat distracting.

Overall, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a pretty forgettable children’s flick.  While it’s at least trying to be funny and uses its historical locales to decent effect, the story is simply an excuse to visit those setpieces and the central conflict ends up feeling a bit forced because of it.  There’s some obvious allegory for the right of a gay adoptive parent to raise a child, but that plot point is never really dwelled on enough for the point to hit home.  The parts that are worth watching are the ones that replicate the spirit of the original cartoon shorts, even if they are saturated with cartoon action.  If you have kids, this isn’t a bad one to sit through.  Otherwise, it’s not really worth your time.

What cartoon relic will Hollywood dig up next?  Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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