Gil Mansergh’s Full length review of Mr. Peabody and Sherman
It’s been over 50 years since I discovered the literate enjoyment (and terrible puns) in Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History—a recurring segment on Jay Ward’s minimally animated Rocky and His Friends TV show. Despite being a beagle, Mr. Peabody isn’t only the smartest being on the planet, he holds a Nobel Prize, and two Olympic medals, and invented the WABAC (wayback) time machine to help his adopted human son, Sherman, do better in his history and Latin lessons.*
The fact that a seven-year-old studied Latin says oodles about how things have changed.
DreamWorks Animation had everything they needed to make a good Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie —the license to use the characters originally created by the famous cartoonist, Ted Key, and Jay Ward’s daughter on board as executive producer to ensure the film “stayed true to the integrity of the characters.” Other than that, the studio had a tabula rasa (as Mr. Peabody would say, “That’s Latin for blank slate”).
Soooo? What did they do with this opportunity? First, they created some heart-warming, dynamic tension by having Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrel) drive his red Vespa and sidecar to take Sherman (Max Charles) to the first day at his new school. The proud dogfather offers lots of advice, and even provides a dog whistle for Sherman to blow if (but really when) he needs Mr. Peabody’s help.
When the classroom teacher asks what the children know about George Washington, a blonde, blue-eyed girl named Penny (Ariel Winter), announces that Washington could not tell a lie about cutting down a cherry tree. Sherman quickly raises his hand and explains that that story is an apocryphal myth written to coerce children to do the right thing. Penny is convinced that Sherman is wrong because “he is being raised by a dog—which everyone knows is just not right.”
This classroom scene highlights two major faults with the film.
The first is that before Mr. Peabody and Sherman headed to school, they made a quick trip in the wayback machine to meet Marie Antoinette and observe the deadly guillotine that made it impossible for her to eat any more cake.
Wait. Why Marie Antoinette? The kids in the theater seemed to have no idea who, where, when or why they had to sit through this boring bit.
Wouldn’t a visit with George Washington have been a much better choice? It certainly would have made sense with that first classroom lesson, and they could have had some fun visuals with the Father of Our Country setting the record straight.
But the biggest mistake was to have Penny be such a bigoted bully. If there is any doubt about this, in the lunchroom scene, she becomes an evil bully on steroids —selecting Sherman as her victim, then throwing his tuna sandwich on the floor and taunting him to fetch it “like the dog that you are.”
The press notes explain that Penny has been added to the movie as “a character girls can identify with.” I guess this means they want girls to bond with a narcissistic, canine-phobic, bully. This “role model” goes on to trick Sherman into disobeying his father by showing her the wayback machine, and then can’t wait to become a child bride to a doomed King Tut. In fact, none of the women in the film are positive role models. Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser), has a cake –fueled eating disorder; Penny’s mother, Patty (Leslie Mann), is easily manipulated arm candy; Mona Lisa (Lake Bell), is too stubborn to smile; and the child welfare woman, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), is a rule-obsessed dog hater so overwhelmed by Agamemnon’s (Patrick Warburton) masculine charms (aka body odor), she leaves the modern world behind to live with him in Trojan horse times.
I could go on, but I think you get the point.
* Those who haven’t had the treat of seeing the original black-and-white episodes can easily find them on YouTube