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Review by Thomas Banks
Walking into the multiplex, I looked forward to Rob Minkoff's Mr. Peabody and Sherman with an anticipation I usually do not feel for animated cartoons. Mr. Peabody's Improbable History, the source material for this new release, stands high among the best animated series of all time and has been unjustly neglected by those who profess a taste for such things. By all rights, it should occupy a place in our inherited pop culture no lower than the best work of Chuck Jones and pre-Eisner Disney. Here I speak with authority, and not as the scribes.
Yet this new product I found wanting. The original possessed the unique charm of being a cartoon for the thinking child, an oddly subtle joining of wry witticism and minimalist animation (it is as visually simple as a Peanuts sketch), which combination, for all its excellence, inevitably condemn it to the periphery of successful children's shows.
Minkoff's new version, decked out in the most up-to-date style of computerized luminosity, retains little of the ethos of the original outside of its title characters and signature plot device, Mr. Peabody's WABAC time machine. Mr. Peabody, a beagle of remarkable mental attainments, and Sherman, Peabody's wide-eyed protege, have found a singular means of managing Sherman's historical education, to whit, journeying back to times long past and hobnobbing with long-dead notables such as President Washington, Mohandas Gandhi, Marie Antoinette and Leonardo da Vinci. All is going splendidly until Mr. Peabody's paternal qualifications come into the tyrannical eye of the imperious social worker Ms. Grunion. Soon thereafter, Sherman and Peabody are compelled to embark on a transtemporal rescue mission in search of Penny, a school friend of Sherman who has been marooned in Ancient Egypt as a result of tampering with the WABAC.
It is at this point that the film begins to bring on the bombast. The numerous comic hairbreadth escapes and cliffhangers imported from any number of the animated blockbusters of recent decades (Minkoff helmed The Lion King, among other hits) feel all too patently familiar. The birthright of sharp banter and sly drollery that was the original's calling card has this time around been sold off for a pot of bluster. On the other hand, the charming dynamic of the two leads is nicely played, and Ty Burrell (of Modern Family) voices Peabody in exactly the right key, perfectly capturing the character's professorial quirkiness. The filmmakers also demonstrate a most welcome professional restraint in their avoidance of the slushy didacticism that has become a hallmark of nearly all animated movies in the last two decades, marring even otherwise admirable efforts such as Kung Fu Panda. Sit down at most any of Disney/Pixar's typical productions and make a private bet with yourself as to how long it will take before a character is admonished to “believe in himself.” You will not wait long. Mr. Peabody and Sherman is refreshingly free of this sort of base lachrimosity.
When the credits roll, the viewer leaves with the sense that what Mr. Peabody lacks is a willingness to stray any distance from the market-proven formulae that have dominated the last generation of feature length animated movies. Nearly everything about it smacks of blueprint orthodoxy, and even where this M.O. momentarily succeeds in teasing out a laugh or two (witness the third act's Trojan Horse sequence) one cannot help but feel that the accountants have been allowed too long a stay in the director's chair. An adventure film that visibly lacks a sense of adventure cannot hope to acquire any place in the pantheon of animation alongside The Jungle Book or The Sword in the Stone. Mr. Peabody is too tame a dog.