With perhaps a couple of exceptions (I’m still reasonably fond of the live-action George of the Jungle, primarily due to its delightfully game cast, especially Brendan Fraser and Keith Scott’s kooky narrator), Jay Ward’s body of animation seems to stubbornly resist theatrical adaptation. This isn’t much of a surprise, as characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and the subjects of this review were designed to take advantage of short-burst segments of a larger whole. Still, Hollywood has tried and mostly failed. Mr. Peabody and Sherman is better than the likes of say, the live-action Dudley Do-Right or Rocky and Bullwinkle films (though as with Jungle, I found pleasure in some of the performances), but it’s frustratingly mediocre all the same.
The best part of the film is unfortunately also the beginning, as, in an homage to the first segment featuring the characters on Bullwinkle, Mr. Peabody (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) explains his own backstory and how he came to adopt the human child Sherman (Max Charles of The Neighbors). It’s a breezy, self-aware intro as Peabody addresses the audience and then ropes Sherman into their latest adventure in the WABAC machine. The ensuing segment in the French Revolution period is also a great deal of fun, poking at figures of the period like Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, although it’s a bit more frenetic and slap-sticky than the show. Still, the way Peabody thinks and fights his way out of situations is enjoyable to watch, and Burrell manages to make the character’s smugly likable personality work more than I thought he would based on the trailer. Originally Robert Downey, Jr. was going to voice Peabody, and while I think that would have been neat, he might have ended up playing himself more than the character since his vocal tics are so distinctive. Burrell is able to disappear into the role more, and Charles is a sprightly vocal presence as Sherman.
Then things shift into the main plot of the film and the goodwill quickly evaporates. One issue I have with some DreamWorks films is that they try and force “heart” into things when many of their films would be better off just being goofy. Megamind for instance is fantastic when it deals with poking fun at superhero and supervillain tropes, particularly with Megamind’s ennui and the toxic “nice guy” qualities of Hal. It is considerably less successful at the romance between Megamind and Roxy, which frankly stops the film dead at several points. I still like that film a great deal, but you get the idea. Peabody has this problem in a big way. Not content with spoofing various historical figures in entertaining ways, director Rob Minkoff of The Lion King and his story team have grafted on a thoroughly artificial conflict to drive the story. Did we really need a film where a nasty child services worker (Alison Janney, putting in immense effort for a perfunctory role that doesn’t deserve it) tries to break apart Peabody and Sherman? The climax where, in addition to a bunch of much more enjoyable time travel craziness, Sherman has to defend Peabody lands with a thud. I didn’t buy it for a second.
That was a common problem with the film, as characters shift allegiances and attitudes with almost no explanation. Penny (Ariel Winter, also from Modern Family) goes from a despicable bully to a more benign “bad influence” character within about 20 minutes, for instance. (That’s another issue: the women in the film are all either blank slates like Penny’s mom, buffoons like Marie Antoinette, or inexplicably rotten like early-Penny, Mona Lisa, or the child service worker) The historical goofiness still has some good jokes (like the Greek soldiers at Troy being a bunch of jocks led by the always welcome Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon), though I could have done without Peabody referring to Egyptian civilization as savage. Other goofy stuff in the margins is decent, like Stanley Tucci’s stereotypical but pleasantly daffy Leonardo Da Vinci or Stephen Colbert being smarmy as Penny’s dad.
Production values wise, the film is fine if a bit generic visually. The backgrounds are nice, the WABAC gets a cool TARDIS-esque makeover, and character animation is pleasantly goofy. The music by Danny Elfman is, well, Elfman so he does an OK if slightly uninspired job. Overall I feel like I have much less to talk about with this film than I do a lot of others. It’s not bad, but it’s not especially good either. It’s the kind of movie you drift across flipping channels, or watch on Netflix with the kids. It won’t murder your brain cells, but it won’t inspire them either. Stick with the TV show.