Day 283: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

"You're right Sherman, you're not a dog… You're just a very bad boy!"
Cartoon characters that originated on the classic The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show have an ignominious history when it comes to feature films. From the largely forgotten stand-alone Boris and Natasha movie from 1992 to the exceedingly terrible Dudley Do-Right and The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle live action films, these characters have not been treated with anything even resembling tender love and care.

Enter The Lion King director Rob Minkoff, who has been trying to get a feature film version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman off the ground since 2003, proving that he was more than just a hired gun; He had a lot of love and respect for the source material, and was determined to turn it into a good film. So could this film buck the trend, or would it be just another misfire from a property that's positively laden with them? Read on to find out...
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) was always different from other dogs. While most dogs were content to fetch and play games, he was interested in bettering himself by reading and studying history. As an adult dog, he has now become a champion of industry, an inventor, and most importantly, adoptive father to a young boy named Sherman (Max Charles). Mr. Peabody has spent Sherman's childhood taking him through history to important events in a time machine he created dubbed the WABAC (pronounced Way Back). This upbringing has made Sherman an industrious and smart young man, but it's also kept him from being integrated with kids his own age.
On Sherman's first day at school, he proves himself to be the smartest boy in the class, much to the chagrin of the previous holder of that distinction, Penny (Ariel Winter). When Penny embarrasses Sherman in front of the whole cafeteria, Sherman bites her, causing the school to take action and alert Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), the school counselor. Mrs. Grunion seems determined to prove that Mr. Peabody isn't fit to be a father, and plans a visit to their home that, if it goes wrong, could mean the end of his custody of Sherman. Mr. Peabody invites Penny's family over for dinner that night, and when Sherman lets Penny know about the WABAC, she insists that he take her through time in it, which could spell disaster not just for Mr. Peabody, but for the time-space continuum in general.
What Mr. Peabody & Sherman lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with a whiz-bang, non-stop thrill ride of a story. While it certainly fails to break any new ground in terms of storytelling, it's not short on imagination or ingenious use of 3D. This is one of those rare occasions where shelling out the extra three bucks for 3D is well-worth your money, as the effects are aided by the technology in incredible ways. The film's greatest success, beyond just the overall look and feel of the film, is its fast-moving narrative and thoroughly enjoyable set pieces. While time travel films have been done to death at this point, the way these filmmakers utilize it is great, and allows for all manner of inventive action sequences in France, Egypt, Italy, Troy, and modern day New York City. The rules of time travel established in the film are also easy enough for kids to follow, and while individual moments may leave them scratching their heads, the film moves so quickly to its next beat that it's pointless trying to fuss over the details.
While this is normally detrimental to a good narrative, this film works well because it's not trying to be a deep and meaningful look at the ramifications of time travel; It's merely the device they chose to keep the story moving forward, which should make audiences more forgiving. More than anything else, it's a film about a father and son figuring out how to have an emotional bond that's deeper than the intellectual one they've spent the last seven years cultivating. Again, it's nothing groundbreaking, and certainly doesn't blaze a new trail down this familiar road, it's just a much more palatable version of these well-worn tropes. I also found myself getting a little choked up at a montage that's cut to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," that will likely have a similar effect on most of the parents in the audience. 
The voice work here is top shelf as well. Ty Burrell has established himself as a major comedic force on the small screen, but he does a bang-up job of giving life to Mr. Peabody. His penchant for puns is a great running gag that may cause many an eye to be rolled, but he delivers them with such aplomb, it's hard to hold it against him. Charles and Winter are also a solid cut above average for child actors, and the supporting cast is a who's who of brilliant comedic talent. Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Allison Janney, Stephen Tobolowsky, and even a cameo from Mel Brooks all flesh out this world hilariously, and do a great job of elevating otherwise run-of-the-mill jokes.
There also simply cannot be enough said about how terrific the animation is in the film. Dreamworks has really stepped up their game of late, beginning with Kung Fu Panda in 2008, and while they've had some misfires since then, they are much fewer and farther between. In hopes of actually turning into Pixar at this point, there's also a short film before the feature that stars Steve Martin as the leader of an alien race searching for a new planet to call home, which I subsequently found out is a teaser for their next feature Home. While Dreamworks is still just a notch below Pixar in terms of consistency, they're no longer the pale imitator they once were, and can comfortably call themselves a worthy competitor.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn't likely to set the box office ablaze the way The LEGO Movie did, but it's significantly more enjoyable than most above the line animated features that have been released in the past few years. Kids will eat it up and parents will find enough relatable material and gorgeous animation to make them feel as if they haven't wasted their money. It's not everything it could have been, but it's not bad, and has a lovability all its own. For the first time in a long time, a beloved franchise feels as if it's in good hands, and what more can you ask for than that?
GO Rating: 3.5/5

[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]