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Mr. Peabody and Sherman

March 14, 2014

There’s always been this kind of Children’s entertainment that has one foot in education and another in making fun of the concept of edutainment. When I was a child, I remember Histeria! falling into this category. A wickedly funny show that was surprisingly educational (to this day I can only remember the fates of Henry VIII’s wives because of a skit from the show) from the same crew who brought such 90s delights as Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs. Of course, this peculiar genre wouldn’t exist if not for the original Mr. Peabody and Sherman shorts that were a part of the Rocky & Bullwinkle programs of the 50s and 60s.

I actually remember a time when Cartoon Network or perhaps Nickelodeon would play these old cartoons at some random block during the day. There are certain visual cues from the show that probably stuck with you, such as the janitor sweeping behind a parade of historical figures. What you might also remember is that Mr. Peabody was well… sort of a dick.

That’s why one of the most delightful changes of the 2014 reboot is the decision to make Mr. Peabody a warmer more fully realized character. Sherman, strangely enough, hasn’t changed much. He’s still a somewhat dumb, slightly naïve, obedient boy who despite his shortcomings has an earnest interest in learning from Mr. Peabody. Only this time, Mr. Peabody isn’t talking down to him because he’s a pretentious lecturer, but because he’s an awkward renaissance man.

Despite the film beginning with Mr. Peabody regaling the audience with his many accomplishments, of which the most notable is the WABAC (a time machine he created to help prepare Sherman for the world), this is very much Sherman’s movie. The film begins on Sherman’s first day of school, where while he makes fast friends with a nerdy clique he also quickly earns the scorn of Penny, a stuck up young girl who’s a bit of a troublemaker. In an attempt to make amends between the two, as well as patch over some more adult concerns, Mr. Peabody invites Penny’s family to his swanky penthouse for an evening of wining and dining. Despite being expressly told not to, Sherman ends up using the WABAC to impress Penny and overcome their own mutual dislike of each other.

Obviously, hijinks ensue and we’re taking on a visually impressive quirky tour of history, filled with the pastiches of historical figures anyone who watched the old show will be quite familiar with.

It actually manages to be a delightful and very cute film. The addition of Penny to the mix is what allows Sherman to grow as a character, moving the formula away from Mr. Peabody lecturing Sherman (which we get a dose of at the start) and into an actually interesting character arc. The characters have just the right amount of depth for their interactions to be believable and the film never really gets bogged down in unnecessary plot or historical explanations. Everything moves in swift beats that are supported by a strong narrative and sturdy emotional core.

Overall, the writing is clever. They manage to touch and hint at more serious subjects without ever bringing them up (ie no one ever says the dreaded D-word), while also slipping in some great jokes for the adults in the theater to enjoy. The animation is fluid and keeps the cartoon aesthetic of its predecessor, while the direction is clean and exciting. Finally, I don’t think anyone can complain about this cast. The three leads do wonderful jobs and they’re supported by an amazing stable of veteran voice actors.

Really the only trip up in this film, as with anything involving history and children, is what the right age is for this movie. When dealing with history, you always have to ensure the kids are old enough to get the references while still being actually interested in the material and forays into more kiddie humor (aimed at the younger siblings who are tagging along). I would say Craig Wright did a solid job of balancing the many spinning plates necessary to pull off a good family friendly film but if you have a cadre of little ones with you they just might not get it. On the flip side, if your kids are older than 10 or 11 they might be too bored or embarrassed to be dragged to this movie that their eight or nine year old sibling might love.

Beyond that tricky problem that every parent must face when dealing with popular entertainment, there’s little to complain about. This won’t blow your mind like other movies targeted at younger audiences might, but it’s a fun little movie with a big heart.

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From → Movies

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