By Preston Wilder
Mr. Peabody is a dog; Sherman is seven years old – but dogs won’t get much out of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and seven-year-olds will miss some of the details. Hopefully they’ll miss the full impact of the bit where Mr. Peabody tells a shocked assembly that he has to get Sherman out of the house “before he touches himself” – and I assume they’ll also miss that the film is coded propaganda for gay adoption or a celebration of alternative parenthood, according to your personal values.
Mr. Peabody does indeed adopt Sherman, and some people have a problem with that. If a boy can adopt a dog there’s no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy, claims the presiding judge with somewhat dubious logic – but the judge has good reason to award Peabody custody, since the mutt is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, a political consultant and a captain of industry as well as a dog (he also, in his spare time, invented planking, Zumba, the fist-pump and the backside Ollie). Peabody’s superior intellect manifests itself in building a time machine known as the WABAC, as well as in making tortuous puns – after which Sherman invariably laughs his head off, then announces: “I don’t get it”.
This pair first appeared as a running gag (weekly segments called Peabody’s Improbable History) on the late-50s Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, probably the first truly zany cartoon series on American television. Rocky and Bullwinkle themselves (a squirrel and a moose, respectively) were cannibalised by Hollywood in a largely unmemorable big-screen version made in 2000 – and we’re now reduced to 3D cartoons about the supporting characters, which is obviously a sad state of affairs. Fans of the original show may be upset by this 21st-century travesty; those (like me) who are only vaguely familiar with Rocky and Bullwinkle, on the other hand, may find the film unexpectedly smart – a reminder that the script is by Craig Wright, an award-winning playwright.
If you measure a cartoon’s level of pandering by the number of fart jokes, Mr. Peabody & Sherman scores quite highly: there’s only one minor lapse (“Do you smell something, Sherman?”; “It wasn’t me, Mr. Peabody!”). Admittedly both the Sphinx and the Trojan Horse appear to be pooing, but any film where the Sphinx and the Trojan Horse play cameo roles – not to mention Marie Antoinette, Benjamin Franklin, Moses, the Mona Lisa, Tutankhamun, Robespierre and a passing reference to the Leaning Tower of Pisa – has earned the right to a fart joke or two. The early scenes are a mixed bag, with Sherman bullied at school (by a girl no less, the bratty Penny) and Peabody recalling their relationship to the saccharine strains of John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’ – but then Penny gets stranded in Ancient Egypt, dog and boy go back in Time to rescue her and the gags come thick and fast, my favourite being perhaps the bit where P&S disguise themselves as a god and threaten Egypt with plagues unless Penny is returned. “Oy, again with the plagues!” a bystander grumbles to his friend. “Why did I ever move to Egypt?”
There’s a Message, of course. Mr. Peabody, for all his brilliance, is emotionally reticent, finding it hard to tell the boy that he loves him (“I have a deep regard for you as well, Sherman,” is the best he can muster). This must change, and duly does. There’s also the usual plug for tolerance, Peabody being gifted (not to mention a dog) hence ‘different’ – but it’s lightly done, our canine hero mixing cocktails for Penny’s parents and fixing her dad’s back (he’s also a licenced chiropractor), after which they’re good friends. As for the soppy father-son issues … well, as Agamemnon puts it when they’re all in the Trojan Horse together, what great man doesn’t have daddy issues? Have you been round to Oedipus’ for Christmas dinner lately? Awkward!
Seven-year-olds won’t get that joke either – but of course the hope/plan is that some will be tempted to Google the historical personages, making the film ‘educational’ as well as clever. Mr. Peabody & Sherman, ranging from Bill Clinton jokes to a seven-year-old’s sense of fun (“You said booby!”), should amuse both kids and suspicious parents, which is no easy task. After all, the one thing even brilliant Peabody is unable to do is make people laugh on cue, despite his blithe assertion that “humour is not immune to the laws of science” – then again, this is the same bad dog who attempts to lighten the mood when they’re fleeing the ancient Egyptians by making a tortuous pun on ‘geezer’ and ‘Giza’. I don’t get it.
DIRECTED BY Rob Minkoff
WITH THE VOICES OF Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter
US 2014 92 mins