Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

I think we can agree that the film versions of Jay Ward's satirical and pun-laden cartoons have been largely wanting. Underdog, Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and, really, the shining gem of the set, George of the Jungle.

It's not a promising track record. Part of it has to do, I'm sure, with the fact that these were originally based on 5-6 minute segments (generally oriented around a pun) ballooned up into a 90 minute (or longer!) movie. Looney Toons have never thrived in long formats, either.

Hopes were not high for Mr. Peabody and Sherman at first, but the reviews were generally positive so The Barb and I went to see it (with The Boy tagging along).

It's a remarkably pleasant and even heart-warming film that captures a lot of the feel of the original segments while adding enough depth to make it sustainable.

I mean, I think The Lion King is just a overblown mediocrity, but director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) has pulled a treat by turning a vehicle that was basically an excuse for shaggy dog (no pun) stories into something with some feels (as the kids say) without losing sight of the absurdity of the premise.

Basically, the premise is that Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a hyper-intelligent dog who can't get adopted for being too smart. ("Fetch the stick? Why? You'll probably just throw it again. It's an exercise in futility.") And after mastering all human arts and sciences, he decides what's missing in his life is a child of his own—so he sues to be allowed to adopt a boy (Max Charles).

It was played strictly for gags in "Rocky and Friends" (as everything was) with Peabody's supercilious nature being contrasted with Sherman's regular-boy kind-of dopey affability. Here, although Sherman has much the same personality, his "dopiness" is more comparative: He's actually quite smart and knowledgeable relative to others his age (he's 7 1/2 here); he just can't hold a candle to Peabody, whose peers are more like Einstein (Mel Brooks) and Leonardo (Stanley Tucci).

Rather nicely, though, the implication is that Sherman could be that smart and even might be the smart when he grows up.

So despite Peabody's superficial diffidence, he's almost a helicopter parent, who has invented the WABAC Machine to teach his boy about history.

So, where does the conflict come from when a hyper-competent parent attentively raises a bright child effectively? Public school and social services!


Also, a snotty little rich girl, Penny, and her milquetoast mom (Leslie Mann) and disinterested, snotty dad (Stephen Colbert).

This contrivance results in Peabody and Sherman and Penny (Ariel Winter) hurtling through time at random (although not random enough to be in the 99.9999% of history where nothing famous or interesting is happening, of course) and making all kinds of terrible, terrible puns.

Most of these jokes land pretty well, and are groan inducing, but there's one about Achilles that was so bad you could hear a pin drop in the theater. As successful as the humor was, it was kind of interesting and noticeable that that particular one bombed so hard. (Later, I realized it was that referencing Achilles' heel is so obvious, it's just a setup for a joke, not an actual joke, so you were waiting for a punchline that never came.)

A lot of the same jokes in their Greek adventure were made in 1997's Hercules, as you might imagine. And if I say "Ancient Egypt",  you can probably guess quite a few of the puns there, too.

No matter: Delivery was largely good. It's a good-looking film and the voice acting is well done, despite the profusion of stunt casting. (I spotted Stephen Colbert immediately, and we all spotted Patrick Warburton instantly, naturally.) It's hard to manage much suspense in this type of film but they did a pretty good job even there.

The Barb liked it but wasn't wildly enthusiastic about it. The Boy was actually a lot more positive about it. I also liked it a lot, despite my initial reservations.

Ty Burrell (Dawn of the Dead, "Modern Family") was probably a key factor in this. At first, I was put off by his Peabody, since Bill Scott (who did the original Peabody, as well as Bullwinkle and many of the other Jay Ward characters) really defined the voice for me, but I see why Minkoff went the way he did: Scott's Peabody is just on the edge of insufferable in his intellectual superiority. Burrell brings a warmth to the character that keeps the edge while tempering it just enough with genuine affection.

The kid, Max Charles—who's one of your harder working 11 year olds, being a regular on "The Neighbors", young Peter Parker in the newest Spider-Man movies, and a voice actor in a variety of things from "Family Guy" to "Adventure Time"—also doesn't sound "quite right" at first, but works out better because he is a kid, rather than adult pretending to be a kid, as on the original show. (Walter Tetley, perennial man-child, played the original Sherman.)

So, overall, a good time had by all, despite the odds.

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