Monday March 10, 2014
Movie Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)
It’s an odd experience seeing a movie written by someone you know. It’s even odder when it’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” the animated Dreamworks feature based upon the 1960s Jay Ward cartoon about a supersmart dog (Mr. Peabody) and his adopted boy (Sherman), who have adventures traveling through time.
Odder still? I see the connection between my old friend and the cartoon dog.
By his teenage years, Craig Wright was more or less orphaned, so he lived with the families of friends during high school. He’s an autodidact who barely touched college but is one of the most well-read people I know. (See here, here and here.) He’s a successful playwright (“Orange Flower Water,” “Grace,” and “The Pavilion,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), a musician (The Tropicals), a TV writer (“Six Feet Under,” “Lost,” “Dirty Sexy Money”). He’s also a father. The great relationship of his life, at least during the time I knew him, was with his son.
In the film, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a dog who never gets adopted because he’s interested in higher pursuits. Later in life, after much acclaim (Nobel prizes, etc.), he creates his own family by adopting a boy, Sherman (Max Charles), whom he raises. It’s the great relationship of his life.
There’s a nice scene near the end of the movie when Sherman, ridiculed by his peers as a dog since he’s being raised by one, finally owns up to it. He shouts, “I’m a dog, too!” Famous figures from history join in: George Washington, King Tut, Agamemnon. It’s a “Spartacus” moment, punctuated by Spartacus himself, who adds, enthusiastically but unhelpfully, “I’m Spartacus!”
But this is what I was thinking throughout the movie: Craig, you’re a dog, too.
The intellectual as hero
The Jay Ward cartoons of the 1960s—“Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Dudley Do-Right,” et al.—were smarter and more pun-filled than their contemporaries, and you can say the same about this adaptation of “Mr. Peabody.” Its time-travel framework gives its creators an opportunity for a history lesson—albeit within the typical movie roller-coaster ride—and Craig and director Rob Minkoff don’t waste it.
We go to 1789 and the French Revolution, 1332 B.C. and King Tut, 1508 and the Italian Renaissance. We travel all the way back to the battle of Troy. We find out the reason Mona Lisa smiles, how Van Gogh came up with “Starry Night,” and why Marie Antoinette says “Let them eat cake.” It’s not really sugar-coated history, either. We get very specific instructions on mummification, for example. One of my favorite moments is Sherman’s first day of school when the teacher explains who George Washington was and what he chopped down, and Sherman, ever enthusiastic, pipes up that the cherry-tree story is apocryphal, created by subsequent generations to teach children a reductive lesson about telling the truth. Sherman actually says “apocryphal.” In a kid’s movie. I love that.
Pop culture tends to malign intellectuals but Mr. Peabody remains a hero here, while intellectual pursuits remain something worth doing and history something worth knowing. Yes, we get a mix of high and low culture, but even when it’s funny it’s generally smart—as when George Washington, back in his own time, impresses the ladies with his face on the $1 bill ... until Ben Franklin shows up with a $100.
We get great groanworthy puns (valedogtorian; queen of denial; and when Mr. Peabody suggests Mr. Antoinette should have delivered an edict to the poor, he adds, “But you can’t have your cake and edict, too”). We also get laugh-out loud moments, as when Peabody forbids Sherman, safely ensconced in Agamemnon’s huge arms, from fighting in the Trojan War. Sherman, p.o.’ed, is communicating through Agamemnon, so when Peabody reminds Sherman he’s a boy, just seven years old, Sherman whispers in Agamemnon’s ear, who announces, in a boyish whine, “... and a half!”
Voicework helps. Among the cameos: Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon, Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci, and Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein, who is admonished on the streets of New York, “Hey Einstein, look where you’re going!” and responds, a la Ratso Rizzo, “I’m walkin’ here!”
From Intolerance to tolerance
The story begins with a silent-movie trope. At school, Sherman is bullied by mean-girl Penny (Ariel Winter), and winds up biting her arm, so the moral authorities, in the person of Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), threaten to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody. At the same time, Peabody arranges a dinner/détente with Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann), at which Penny convinces Sherman to use Mr. Peabody’s time-travel machine, the WABAC, and ... yadda yadda. Generally, Penny gets in trouble and they pull her out of it. A minor subplot involves Penny pushing Sherman to do the grown-up things Peabody forbids—such as steering Da Vinci’s flying machine—skills that will come in handy in the final act.
The ending is sweet.
As in the beginning, Peabody drives Sherman to school on his scooter. As in the beginning, they exchange good-byes, but reversed: each says what the other said earlier. Then Peabody, who’s been narrating at various points, turns to the camera and gives us the final pun: “No doubt about it,” he says, “every dog should have a boy.”
Wait. Every dog should have a boy? Rather than “its day”? That’s not much of a pun.
And it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be advice to all of us in the audience. From one dog to another.