by Tony Dayoub
With one unorthodox animated feature (discussed at the end of this post) capitalizing on parental nostalgia at the box office, it's expected that another more conventional one would try and do the same. And Mr. Peabody and Sherman is that... conventional. Admittedly, it is funny, with many of its jokes sailing over younger heads and right towards the hearts of their gen-x parents. But they aren't anywhere near as dryly hilarious as the one-liners which seemed to fly out a mile-a-minute in the "Peabody's Improbable History" segments of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (1959-1964).
Super-intelligent canine Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell)—who invented everything from auto-tuning to zumba—recites his CV, proudly touting that he graduated "vale-dog-torian" from Harvard. But is that anywhere near as witty as the aside in the original series, that his degree was "wag-na cum laude, of course." One gets the sense that the filmmakers worry today's audiences wouldn't get that, that Mr. Peabody and Sherman has been dumbed down in order to appeal in an age where climate change and evolution are considered merely to be just one version of reality.
Appropriate, some may say, since the dog and his boy Sherman always played fast and loose with established facts, scarcely worrying too much about the effect their presence would have on historical events as they traveled through time in Peabody's WABAC (or Wayback) Machine. Here, Peabody gets caught up in a sticky situation where his parental rights are threatened after Sherman bites a classmate at school. Inviting the aggrieved girl Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann) over for dinner inadvertently complicates things when Sherman tries to impress her by taking her on a spin in the WABAC, all the way to Ancient Egypt.
"I love you, Mr. Peabody," says Sherman, to which Peabody can only muster, "I have a deep regard for you as well, Sherman." It's part of a sappy subplot that feels de rigueur in fare for today's children. Peabody must fend off a scary social worker (Allison Janney) as he tries to corral figures like Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) and Albert Einstein (Mel Brooks) and get them back home to their time, saving both the world and his relationship with Sherman. Most of the action surrounding the social worker and Penny feels unnecessary and tacked on to what were always the most engaging parts of Peabody and Sherman's adventures, their messy, timeline-altering interactions with historical figures.
Kind and harmonious Ty Burrell (Modern Family) seems miscast as Peabody, who always came across as nonplussed, dispassionate, and even disinterested in the outcome of his adventures with Sherman. Then again, it feels like Burrell is perfectly in keeping with this revisionist Mr. Peabody and Sherman, amusing enough in the short term, but ultimately just another disposable, candy-colored crowd-pleaser.
You're better served taking a second look (or first if you haven't and, if so, what are you waiting for) at The Lego Movie. The Lego Movie still aims for both kids and their parents, but doesn't appear to make any concessions in its quest to win both over. That's a major achievement for a movie that, from the outset, looks like a thinly veiled attempt to simply promote a toy. Instead, its story celebrates the myriad ways that imagination can influence playtime with Legos. The movie's hero Emmett (Chris Pratt) is a conformist in a town brimming with them. In Bricksburg, no one strays from their designated jobs, routines, meals or even the songs they sing, lest they are punished by Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an autocrat that wields a weapon which sets things right, the Kragle.
It was disheartening to realize that of all the characters, it was Lord Business that I identified with the most. He insists that every Lego set be built according to its corresponding book of instructions instead of allowing more imaginative little consumers to refashion the building blocks into devices of their own creation. This is something I, OCD that I am, constantly come under criticism for from my wife. The Lego Movie beautifully advocates for children to follow their own instincts and go against the grain when they play. Yes, it hopes that Legos are the vehicle for their flights of fancy. But as much as this kind of corporatist film can, it mostly highlights the fact that one can indulge their imagination with a very few bricks. The Lego Movie might be the first toy-based film that suggests children don't need to buy anymore of its toys than the ones they already have.