Too Many Notes
“What did you learn today Sherman?” It’s a favorite question for Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell), intently focused on the lessons absorbed by his boy Sherman (Max Charles). These lessons might be of the daily sort—respect your elders, do your homework—but they’re also occasioned rather sensationally, that is, by way of the WABAC machine, a super-tech red orb that carries father and son into the past so they might admire the munificent Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) or pass judgment on the greedy Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser).
If all this sounds familiar, you might be approaching the new 3D film version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman with equal measures of hope and dread, for you’ve likely taken no small delight in Ted Key and Jay Ward’s five-minute cartoons, that used to pop up on the old The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. You won’t be surprised to see that the computer-generation isn’t so charming as the waybacky cel animation depicts here. The antics are revved up and noisy, with the sorts of explosions and chase scenes and fart jokes that have long since become requisite in big-money children’s entertainments.
What you may not be expecting is the movie’s effort to make order of the short episodes that made up the original concept: while Mr. Peabody and Sherman do indeed travel to various “whens” and meet up with any number of famous personages, they do so under a narrative line concerning their relationship. It’s no longer just okay for a dog to be father to a boy. This time, the state (in both an abstract and material sense) has to get into the act, in the formidable form of Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), a Child Protective Services agent who determines that such a pairing is wrong on its face and must be undone forthwith.
This despite a previous ruling, shown in one of the film’s many over-explanatory flashbacks, delivered by a judge voiced by Dennis Haysbert, of all people. Mr. Peabody recalls this moment when he was legally allowed to adopt his beloved human child with huge nerdboy eyeglasses to match his own. That the movie underlines the legality of the relationship before it presents the mean-spirited and shortsighted challenge by Ms. Grunion makes clear a broader point.
This point has contexts now that may not have been so visible during the TV episodes’ run, as today, kids might recognize prejudice against so-called nontraditional family structures (that Mr. Peabody and Sherman existed in the late ‘50s suggests at least a bit of historical revisionism has been at work since then and before). Mr. Peabody’s capacity for love (or, as he puts it, “a high regard”) is related to his general brilliance, of which the film reminds you (or introduces to newcomers) with a most commonplace device: “Let me tell you about myself,” he says, before a montage shows him reading books, practicing yoga, instructing the UN on the wisdom of peace, inventing the zumba, and scaring off potential kid adopters who think he’s too “sarcastic”. He’s awesome, you see right away, and his decision to adopt the abandoned infant Sherman seems a sweet and righteous extension of his wonderfulness.
That this doesn’t seem to be enough—that the lessons ginned up by the movie can’t be so clever or entertaining as before—is of a piece with Ms. Grunion, who barrels her way into the plot on the heels of anther too-obvious device, when home-schooled Sherman enters elementary school and promptly meets a bully by the name of Penny (Ariel Winter). Threatened by Sherman’s keen knowledge of history (he knows the story about George Washington and the cherry tree is apocryphal because, well, his friend George told him so), she sets in motion the wheels of legal bureaucracy that would remove Sherman from his dad. Mr. Peabody, in turn, imagines he’ll bring the opposing forces together and reason with them.
If Mr. Peabody demonstrates that he hasn’t watched much cable “news” or paid attention to the intractable machineries of the US Congress or Middle East conflicts or North Korea and Russia of late, you can chalk that up to his having better things to do, namely, spend time with his son. It’s cool, of course, that this time involves time-traveling, here to ancient Egypt (where they meet a very young and entitled King Tut [Zac Callison]] and the Trojan War (where Agamemnon [Patrick Warburton] makes his own effort to adopt “Shermanus” as a child warrior), an episodic structure that’s distracting and rambunctious but eventually comes back round to its focus on father and son.