Mr Peabody & Sherman finds DreamWorks Animation in an odd position, with its usual Midas touch at the box office seemingly not what it was. The terrific Rise Of The Guardians struggled, Turbo even more so, and whilst The Croods did good business, How To Train Your Dragon 2 can’t come along fast enough.
But before then there’s Mr Peabody & Sherman, a decade-long labour of love from The Lion King‘s co-director, Rob Minkoff. Based on the Peabody‘s Improbable History moments that were broadcast as part of The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show, the key idea is that Mr Peabody is a genius dog, who adopts a boy by the name of Sherman. After all, argues the film, if a boy can adopt a dog, why can’t a dog adopt a boy? We’ll leave that to Social Services to sort out.
It proves to be helpful having a genius dog as one of the two lead characters in a big movie though, as it allows it a well-implemented educational element, without it becoming overbearing and scaring people away. Courtesy of a time machine known as the WABAC, Mr Peabody and Sherman find themselves zipping throughout various moments in history, meeting historical characters, and subtly giving the younger members of the audience an introduction to things they may not be aware of.
Choosing wisely what to explain and what to leave alone, Mr Peabody & Sherman thus gets off to a riproaring start, throwing in science jokes, good characterisation and a generous dose of entertainment. Furthermore, Mr Peabody has an exquisite line in puns, bad jokes that any father would be proud of telling, and his gags are hard not to grin at.
When it’s focused on the relationship between dog and son, and when it’s visiting the likes of the Trojan War and Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa, the film is strong. It certainly had us at the mix of science, history and puns that it blends together well.
What doesn’t work anywhere near so well, however, is the character of Penny. She’s Sherman’s classmate at the start of the film, and she’s particularly unpleasant too. In fact, she’s pretty vile to him, and the film, for us, never bridges why they would start to become friendlier as it progresses. Certainly there are circumstances that throw them together where they need to help each other out, but it’s never convincing as to why that then develops into something more.
And that’s a problem, as for periods of time, Mr Peabody & Sherman shifts away from the bountiful relationship between the two title characters, and zooms in on Sherman and Penny instead. These are the parts of the film where it’s hard to really root for it: we’d been put off Penny so much early on (even though, to the film’s credit, it does explain why she’s so horrible to Sherman), that we didn’t really want Sherman to be her friend.
Furthermore, the inevitable last act big blockbuster sequence – while impressive to look at – again feels less interesting than what’s led to it. Because for long periods, Mr Peabody & Sherman has the nerve to go with unfussy, classy animation, and two unconventional characters talking. By distance, those were our favourite moments. A quick nod too to some terrific voice work, particularly in the supporting cast. Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stephen Toblowsky and Mel Brooks flesh the cast out well, and Ty Burrell’s tones are a suitably fit for a canine genius.
A bit of a mix this one, then. There’s plenty to like about Mr Peabody & Sherman, a film that toys with taking some unconventional roads, albeit eventually going through similar motions come the end as any number of other movies you could mention. If the film does, however, give DreamWorks enough change in its tin, it’d be interesting to meet the two lead characters again, exploring a bit more history as they do so. We’d be grateful if they could leave Penny to find someone new to pick on, though.
Mr Peabody And Sherman is out on Friday 7th February in the UK.
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