Animated movies traditionally appeal to kids through a fast-food tie in, packaging toys in a Happy Meal meant to act more as advertisement than nutritional enrichment. Peabody and Sherman doesn’t belong in a detrimental partnership with McDonald’s or Burger King, however. The intelligent, fast-paced and motivational family comedy should pair up with Encyclopedia Britannica, so curious kids can thumb through volumes to follow through on the historical periods referenced by Peabody (and maybe better understand some of the film’s heady, often hilarious, jokes).
Don’t mistake Peabody and Sherman as homework. I can’t think of the last time I’ve had as much fun with a kinetic, confident time-travel comedy. Probably the original Bill & Ted, which similarly sent its heroes on a thrilling roller-coaster sprint through various historical periods, hellbent on entertaining but remembering to educate along the way.
Peabody and Sherman don’t use a telephone booth (though think about how dated that makes Bill & Ted). Instead, they travel using the WABAC machine, one of Mr. Peabody’s inventions that he constructed to … well, wait. I’m getting way ahead of myself, and anyone under the age of 60 might need a refresher course. These characters started as contributors to the animated The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. In a surreal bit of plotting, Peabody (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) is a hyper-intelligent dog with a Harvard degree who, anxious for a family to call his own, petitions the courts to allow him to adopt a human son named Sherman (Max Charles). That’s right. A talking dog wages a legal battle to adopt a human child. We actually see this sequence play out in one of director Rob Minkoff’s delightfully wonky comedic sequences.
Anyway, Peabody wants his son to experience history, so the WABAC (pronounced “way back”) machine lets them visit Marie Antoinette at the onset of the French Revolution or inspire Leonardo da Vinci as he paints the Mona Lisa. This is all well and good until Sherman needs to start school, where he argues with his history teacher about the veracity of George Washington’s cherry tree story because, well, Sherman talked to our nation’s first president and knows that the classic yarn is bogus.
Minkoff needs a valid reason to reboot Peabody and Sherman for a modern era and finds it buried within a social lesson on bullying. Penny (Ariel Winter) is a know-it-all who despises Sherman and the attention he receives. They quarrel at school, and social services shows up to see if they can separate nerdy Sherman from his canine dad. During a dinner scene meant to assure the authorities that Peabody’s a harmless intellect, however, Penny test drives the WABAC, and our movie is off and running.
Peabody doesn’t try to play the same games as The LEGO Movie or The Nut Job. It tells a story that sophisticated kids will appreciate, detouring swiftly through Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance and Troy (as the Trojan War is ready to launch). Peabody’s fond of groan-worthy puns, and Sherman occasionally laughs at jokes you know he doesn’t get… primarily because he states, “I don’t get it.” Part of the overall fun.
My 6-year-old son really wanted to keep up with the bouncy Sherman, though. You could tell he was enjoying it, even as chunks of the movie zoomed over his head. A joke about the loss of a deposit during an Egyptian wedding got a big laugh from the parents in our screening audience, and he quickly leaned over to me to ask, “What’s a deposit?” Sherman engaged him (and most kids, I’ll assume) on the visceral level with its quickly choreographed action sequences that soar over places they don’t normally see in a cartoon. Florence, Italy and the French countryside look splendid in Sherman’s eye-popping 3D, and I admired the movie’s refusal to pander.
Sherman, to its credit, also has heart to match its brain. Mr. Peabody goes through the parental routines of learning to trust his maturing son. Sherman realizes he has inner strength, so long as he can discover his confidence. I heard one or two dads choke back sniffles during an unexpectedly tender montage – set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” – of baby Sherman interacting with ridiculous historical milestones, like infant Moses being floated down the Nile.
The fact that Peabody even attempts a joke like that elevates it to a different level, in my book. Give it a try with your curious youngster. You’ll all learn a little something, and have a lot of fun.
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