Monday, March 31, 2014

Movie Review: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Directed by Rob Minkoff. 2014.

A simple test will tell whether Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a movie for you. The evaluation has nothing to do with whether you can get your head around the sight of a talking dog or time travel or such, but rather tells taste in humor. Imagine this: Peabody and Sherman find themselves amidst the French Revolution and, after Peabody executes a slick escape from the guillotine by use of a melon, an outraged Robespierre picks up the sliced fruit and exclaims, "Tricked by a cantaloupe, the least of fruits!" If that qualification, the least of fruits, which is impossible to explain or understand, doesn't tickle your funny bone by its absurdity and resistance to reason, then neither Mr. Peabody and Sherman, nor any of the classic Jay Ward cartoons, may be for you.

If you chuckled, though, then welcome aboard.

Mr. Peabody, a dog, is a brilliant scientist and father to Sherman, his adopted boy. The clever twist to this reboot is recasting Peabody from a wily historian into a genius sophisticate, as at home splitting atoms as he is regaling guests with witty banter and mixing his classic drink, the Einstein on the Beach. He can also whip up a Baked Alaska while he plays the piano, electric guitar, and didgeridoo, before he cures your backache. There are two keys to Peabody's success in this picture, though. The first is Ty Burrell's voice acting, which imbues to Mr. Peabody a maturity, charm, and paternal concern which win us over. The second key is that Peabody's many skills are introduced mostly in the service of the story. We don't get many cutaway moments like the opening in which Peabody shows off just for laughs, but rather jokes built into the plot.

That plot could scarcely be less substantial, but it's enough to hold the jokes together; Peabody has to entertain an irascible couple who is threatening to have Sherm expelled for fighting with their daughter. During dinner, Sherman and that classmate along with Peabody are whisked through time. Slight as it is, though, the script takes enough time to set up Peabody's relationship to Sherman as tutor and mentor. Mr. Peabody educates him himself, tells Sherman how to succeed at school, and finally dropping him off there, gives him a little dog whistle to call home. What a splendid little touch.

The script even takes enough time and thought for a touching little montage in which Peabody, after tucking Sherm in after a rough first day at school, reminisces about raising the orphan he found one rainy night. Set to John Lennon's Beautiful Boy, Peabody's look back at raising Sherm wisely starts in the present and works its way back, a brilliantly simple way of avoiding montage conventions. Similarly, and with a touch smart for the film and sensible in the plot, Peabody via his WABAC time machine has raised Sherm throughout other eras–there's a cute picture of him with Gandhi–letting the montage add variety to the film's visuals while avoiding the tendency to cram too much into the main story. Little details and efforts like these make a difference.

Speaking of that time travel, Mr. Peabody and Sherman have a funny blast through history. In one episode of the classic original Schubert runs out into a street of motor-vehicular traffic. Eek. I realized I was in good hands here, though, when Sherm proudly exclaimed that the story of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree was apocryphal. And bless him, Sherm actually used the word apocryphal. The time traveling scenes are a hoot and I laughed my tail off. Agamemnon is a muscle-head psyching up his Greek troops, who get duped into letting Peabody's miniature wooden horse into. . . their wooden horse. The writers even exonerate, though perhaps accidentally, Marie Antoinette by showing us the terrible misunderstanding in which she became known as the queen who said, "Let them eat cake." It's not just the historical sets, setups, and gags that make Mr. Peabody and Sherman funny, though, but the movie's off-kilter tone which gives everything a charming, comic bent. It's a note seldom sought or struck today, but when it's hit, it's deliriously fun, and that tone is zany. Sometimes that tone is set by dialogue, other times by a character's eyes or walk, but somehow it's always there, making us look at everything cockeyed, and laugh.

The script also does a slick job of working Peabody's historical descriptions into the plot so they don't feel like lectures. Yes, Peabody tells us about King Tut, but it's only to tell Sherm's little friend that given the young king's fate he might not make the best husband. Sure this is whimsical and silly, but it's not dumb. There are puns aplenty, too–I guess I'm an old Giza!–and even a running joke in which Peabody and Sherm repeatedly chuff out the rear ends of various animal-shaped vehicles. And that's the running joke! Wacca wacca!

Anyway, Peabody gets a laugh out of Mona Lisa, the kids take a flight in Leonardo Da Vinci's flying machine, Beethoven plays Dance Dance Revolution and Robespierre gets tasered. If that doesn't make you want to take a quick spin through history with this charming polymath and Renaissance dog. . . well who am I kidding, of course it does.

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