'Mr. Peabody' turns history into a broadly comic and aggravating sideshow
Mr. Peabody & Sherman 20th Century Fox
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenplay: Craig Wright, based on Peabody's Improbable History, by Ted Key
Starring: The voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci and Patrick Warburton
Rated PG / 1 hour, 32 minutes
March 7, 2014
(out of four)
If Mr. Peabody & Sherman wants to teach us anything, it's that the pages of history are an irritating collection of extraordinarily broad caricatures and cultural stereotypes. It dashes from Ancient Egypt to the French Revolution to the Renaissance to the middle of the Trojan War, and in each landing spot offers us one annoying historical figure after another.
I assume the movie thinks it's having fun with history and encouraging us to have fun right along with it, but yikes, who would want to spend another minute with these characters? A bubbly, cackling Marie Antoinette who's obsessed with eating cake? Robespierre as a buffoon-like French cliche? Agamemnon as an empty-headed, cheerfully obnoxious frat bro, alongside a fellow Greek soldier who sounds like he took voice lessons from Bobcat Goldthwait? Leonardo da Vinci as a bickering nitwit with a hackneyed Italian accent?
If these were my experiences traveling throughout history, I think I would have packed up my time machine long ago, forever disillusioned (and annoyed) by my encounters.
Beyond that, there's not much more to the film, which amounts to a series of mostly unfunny historical comedy sketches, built inside a flimsy frame story about the relationship between a father and son. The father is Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, doctor and inventor whose 7-year-old adopted son Sherman (Max Charles) is equally brilliant. But when the boy gets into a tussle with the bratty, entitled Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) on the first day of school and bites her, Peabody's parenting skills are put under the microscope by the odious child-services investigator Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), who wonders why a dog was ever allowed to adopt a human boy in the first place. And so it is up to Peabody to solve everything by hosting a dinner party with Mrs. Grunion and Penny's parents (voiced by Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) that will show them all what a loving and attentive father he is.
Leaving aside the movie's admirable sentiment, given the events we see play out, it's hard not to call Peabody's parenting into question ourselves. Every time he and his son travel back in time, poor Sherman very nearly gets killed before being miraculously saved, just in the nick of time, by one of his dad's clever schemes. Watching your child almost die again and again, while continuing to deliberately put him in the position to do so, certainly constitutes reckless endangerment, does it not? You could argue that I'm missing the point, except the movie makes explicitly clear that its point is how worthy a parent Mr. Peabody is, and yet it does such an awful job making that argument. In fact, it never takes the time to make the argument at all - it just expects us to accept the efficacy of Peabody's parenting skills, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
But alright, alright - I'll go with it, if only because the movie's sense of danger is so non-threatening. There's never any doubt that everyone will get out of each historical pickle unscathed; Peabody is too smart to ever be outwitted by the likes of ancient history. And so the (presumed) fun of the movie is in the way it gets father and son into each predicament, and the way Peabody always finds a way to get them out of it. On this particular evening (the night of the all-important dinner party, where Peabody's guardianship of his adopted son is at stake), Sherman makes the ill-informed decision to try to impress Penny by showing her his dad's prized invention, the WABAC, a time machine with nearly limitless capability. The only caveat, we're told, is that it strongly advises against traveling back to a time within your own lifetime, lest the whole space-time continuum be thrown out of whack.
But the film - directed by Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and penned by veteran TV writer Craig Wright - has such a stunning dearth of ideas once the excursions through history begin that it loses whatever goodwill its sweet father/son relationship had originally earned. It reduces all of its historical vignettes and icons into farcical caricatures, neither clever nor original. And like so many animated movies these days, the dialogue relies largely on the kinds of bad puns that any half-clever person could have easily written. Most of your friends and mine could have come up with those puns in their sleep.
The animation, despite consultation from Guillermo Navarro, offers the same lack of nuance, with largely monotonous character design and the most banal possible interpretations of its historical settings. (Its one bit of interesting work is the way the child characters are designed, with giant heads and tiny bodies, like video-game avatars.)
It's so disheartening to continue to see this type of creative laziness from DreamWorks Animation, even after the beauty and sophistication of the likes of How to Train Your Dragon and The Croods suggested the studio may have turned a corner. But I'm afraid movies like Mr. Peabody & Sherman - easy, unchallenging movies with easy jokes and easy resolutions - will continue to be the norm.