'Mr. Peabody & Sherman:' Updated characters true to original but film feels disjointed

Published on Thursday, 13 March 2014 23:02 - Written by Stewart Smith ssmith@tylerpaper.com

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a cute film with some decent laughs and a real, honest attempt at infusing the pun-infused proceedings with genuine heart. It just never really comes together, unfortunately.

At first glance I was left wondering who really wanted or asked for a modern update on the characters originally introduced by Jay Ward alongside Rocky and Bullwinkle. I mean, were any of the fans from back then really clamoring for an animated reintroduction to these pun-heavy cartoon characters? But I digress.

Their incarnation here is more or less identical to the cartoons from the ‘50s and ‘60s as Mr. Peabody remains a genius, anthropomorphic (and bespectacled) dog, although his companion Sherman is now his adopted son (as opposed to being his “pet boy” as the boy was in the cartoon). They, of course, use the Wayback Machine to travel through time to rub shoulders with the likes of George Washington, Gandhi and Leonardo da Vinci and make a ton of history-centric puns along the way.

That father/son dynamic between Peabody and Sherman is actually the heart of the film as well as what helps kick the plot proper into motion. Peabody is under investigation by a huffy, stern social worker who insists dogs are unfit to be parents. Sherman bit a fellow classmate following her incessant tormenting (she repeatedly called him a dog) and now Ms. Grunion wants him removed from Peabody’s custody. Peabody, hoping to smooth things over with Penny and her parents, invites the family over for dinner. Of course, it’s not long until Penny and Sherman are traipsing through time and it’s up to Peabody and the kids to hit the time stream and set history straight.

The film as a whole is pretty innocuous. The jokes are delivered fairly rapidly. The animation is decent. The message is nice and the puns chuckle-worthy (though often groan-inducing, as the best puns are). It feels episodic at best, disjointed at worst. Each time they hop to a new era it feels disconnected from whatever antics they were up to in the past. I’m not sure if this was an attempt to mirror the format of the show, where they would spend each episode in a different period, or if this was simply how the writers felt the script should move, but either way the lack of connection from time to time hurts the film.

It also doesn’t help that the script veers, more often than not, toward the sentimental in place of the zany and humorous. I always appreciate when animated films for kids (or any film, really) makes a concerted effort to give the characters nuance and infuse the script with a genuine, beating heart. But here it’s more like window dressing. The sentimentality isn’t empty, but it’s certainly not earned in the way the film wants us it to be.

I will say that I appreciate the fact that brains and science are what ultimately save the day. Mr. Peabody’s encyclopedic brain (they’re clearly drawing off the recent film and television incarnations of Sherlock Holmes for inspiration here) is what helps the characters keep their heads (literally in one case) throughout and it’s presented in a way that is exciting and even cool. That being a history and science nerd would ever be presented as heroic is kind of mind-blowing to me, but I’m happy to see it happen.

There’s not much really to dissect here, though, as the film doesn’t really offer much to discuss. It’s harmless fun that your kids will enjoy, but this doesn’t reach across the age gap aisle in the way that the best animated fare does.