Thursday, April 24, 2014

Current Reels: Mr. Peabody & Sherman brings wit but lacks bite

"Now don't touch that, Sherman..." Image courtesy of DreamWorks.

Back when I was a wee pup in oversized glasses not unlike Sherman's, I used to relish the time when the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show would come on the Saturday morning cartoons. It was quick-paced and sardonic, filled with political commentary of the time that generally went over my head, except for the Cold War villains embodied in Boris and Natasha. My favorite short was Mr. Peabody & Sherman, about a particularly precocious time-traveling dog who “owned” a little boy.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Hollywood tried valiantly to bring Rocky & Bullwinkle and their accompanying sketches to the big screen - with limited success, to say the least. (Let’s not talk about Dudley Do-Right, except to say Brendan Frasier definitely put emphasis on the “Dud.”) In the course of making the material more accessible to current kiddies, the knife-sharp wit and sarcasm of the original show got lost on the cutting room floor.

This happens to some extent in the DreamWorks reboot. Mr. Peabody remains his impassive, unruffled self, but in the process of making him more universally kid-friendly, he does lose some of his acerbic wit. Ty Burrell gives Mr. Peabody a warmer, less nasally tone than the original, which smooths off a few of the rough edges that those of us who remember the original show came to know and love. But director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, The Forbidden Kingdom) manages to succeed in retaining some of the original caustic quality of the show while bringing Mr. Peabody into the 21st century. Peabody's no pushover, and still gets his jabs in where it counts, particularly when dealing with obnoxious human parents. His early 1960s-style home and decor, straight from the original source, takes on an appealing hipster retro look for today’s audiences. Sherman is also given more dimension as he struggles to make his way in the world having a dog for a father.
Original Mr. Peabody & Sherman, with the Wayback Machine.

The only true weak link in the film is the character of Penny, who plays the female protagonist that ruthlessly picks on Sherman, only to decide that he is actually cool when she finds out that Mr. Peabody owns a time machine called the “Wayback” (best name for a time machine ever - sorry Tardis). That’s where her character development stops. We never grow to love her in the way that the filmmakers clearly want us to, remaining pretty much a pain in the tuckis most of the way through.
As the plot winds up and Penny’s ditzy parents are properly disposed of so we can all get to the fun stuff,  the trio of Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny bounce and careen their way through time, successfully rendering the lightning-quick pace of the original show. They are greeted by a variety of  historical characters voiced by an all-star cast, including Patrick Warburton, his booming barritone a perfect match for the thuggish but well-meaning Agamemnon, and a welcome surprise of the inimitable Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein.

One aspect where the film truly shines is how its nuggets of wisdom are subtly brought forth, rather than spoon fed to us, which is so often the case. The one “a-ha” moment for me is when Sherman takes one of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying crafts and sails it through the air with Penny in tow, and is doing just fine until Mr. Peabody says “Sherman, you can’t fly a plane!”whereupon he loses his nerve and goes crashing into a forest.

It wasn't all it could be, but then spinning a 10-minute segment of a larger show into a feature length film is never an easy task, and it succeeds better than most. If it does well enough for a sequel, however, I certainly hope they give more opportunities for Peabody's bite to be worse than his bark.

Toby sez: A successful reboot of dated source material and a good romp for kids, but leaves adult viewers wanting more.

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