Skip to main content

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman
(2014)

Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.


I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sherman derives. I haven’t even seen the classic movie version starring Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader (and hasn’t Bob just gone from strength to strength in the 15 years since?) As such, I’m unable to avow that that the spirit of the original has been desecrated and replaced with an over-explained set-up and generic CG animation (well, I can testify to the latter, but it has been ever thus of late). But the oddball premise is an appealing one; a genius dog with an adopted seven-year-old son (it might have been even odder if Sherman had been Peabody’s biological offspring; the picture gets quite close to the knuckle on several occasions) is so fastidious about his education that he takes Sherman for regular jaunts through history in a time machine of his own design.


Making a feature requires baggage that would be unnecessary in a short; there needs to be an arc of some kind, even if it’s as glib as that of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (to which this owes a debt; or maybe Bill and Ted owe the original show a debt). As such, Peabody spends a little too much time establishing the conflict that drives the plot; Sherman’s bullying classmate Penny Peterson gets Sherman into trouble at school, so endangering Peabody’s custody. This involves a slightly laboured subplot about Sherman being ashamed of his father being a dog (although this pays off with an “I’m Spartacus” finale).


On the other hand, the custody element incorporates a readily identifiable subtext concerning same sex parenting. There can be little doubt this was intentional, although it has attracted relatively little attention. Certainly, not compared to the much-discussed lesbian anthem in Frozen (of course, Frozen was a zeitgeist-capturing picture; Peabody has barely been noticed). Child Protective Services’ Mrs Grunion (Allison Janney) stands for strict intolerance of anything that deviates from perceived societal norms (“In my opinion a dog can never be a suitable parent to a boy”) and proceeds to impugn Peabody’s parenting skills at every opportunity. It’s no great leap to see the bullying of Sherman bullying (“Beg like a dog”) as arising from having gay parents. One might even see Peabody’s emotional reticence towards Sherman (“I have a deep regard for you as well, Sherman”; it’s only at the end that he can say “I love you”) resulting from concerns over the judgements of those around him.


But it’s the anarchic energy, hard to come by in big screen animations, that sets Peabody apart. It reminds me a little in tone of one Disney’s few forays into the more postmodern Warner Bros style, the underappreciated The Emperor’s New Groove (it may be no coincidence that both share the inimitable vocal talents of Patrick Wharburton). As much as I think the commentary mentioned above is by design, it’s undercut by such batty logic as the custody judgement “Very well then, if a boy can adopt a dog, I see no reason why a dog cannot adopt a boy”. Likewise, this a family movie discussing daddy issues that cheerfully invokes the spectre of Oedipus (“Let’s just say you do not want to be at his house over the holidays, it’s awkward”).


As is usual for DreamWorks, there’s an abundance of mild bodily function and naughty bits jokes. The most inventive of these involves Greek soldiers plopping out of the tail of the Trojan horse in an excretory manner. There are also gags that sail close to the wind; during the climax, where figures form history are fetching up in present day New York (very Bill and Ted, complete with some very obvious one-liners; “Hey, Einstein! It’s a red light!”), Washington and Lincoln offer Peabody a presidential pardon. At which Bill Clinton appears and admits, “I’ve done worse”. The ructions of the climax result from a time paradox, in which two Shermans and two Peabodys exist at the same time and in approximate space. This leads to the Peabody exclaiming, “Sherman, I’ve got to get you out of here before you touch yourself!”). Unsurprisingly, the Grunion exclaims “What?!”, which was exactly my reaction.


Peabody: He is Ay.
Sherman: He is you?
Ay: I am Ay. The grand vizier.
Peabody: That’s his name.

Justice is not served on the Grunion, who seems to be rather let off the hook when Wharburton’s Agamemnon makes off with her to ancient Greece (“The Grunion is mine!”) Given Agamemnon’s fate, this may be commentary in itself. There are four main ports of call in the past, all of which deliver a breathless stream of both obvious and clever verbal and visual gags (and a succession of bad Peabody puns, to which Sherman’s response is “I don’t get it”). The first of these is revolutionary France (“Marie Antoinette sure likes cake, Mr Sherman”), followed by a sojourn in Ancient Egypt (“Oy, again with the plagues. Why did I ever move to Egypt?”) This might have the best in a rum lot of puns (“They get married too young in Egypt.. Or perhaps I’m just some old Giza”).


Leonardo da Vinci: The sunshine! The pasta! All the things that make Italy such a popular tourist destination.

Then there’s a visit to Leonardo da Vinci, which appears to have been at least partly inspired by Hudson Hawk (encouraging the Mona Lisa to smile, making use of da Vinci’s flying machine). It’s here that mean Penny is allowed redemptive qualities, with the focus shifting to Peabody needing to slacken Sherman’s leash and granting him a modicum of independent thought. The best recurring joke concerns da Vinci’s robot child (“You ever see that child he made? So creepy”) a freaky Pinocchio affair that resurfaces at the climax (“Papa! Momma!”)


Agamemnon: Smell my victory. Smell it!

The trip to Troy features a sublime Trojan horse within a Trojan horse gag (“I did not see that coming”) and the apparent demise of Peabody. The arch approach to narrative reaches its zenith when Peabody resurfaces, having fashioned a makeshift WABAC (the time machine) from “Bones, stones and yak fat”.


Anchoring all this is a tremendous vocal performance from Ty Burrell as Peabody. Robert Downey Jr was originally attached, but I can’t imagine he would have been as winning. Burrell was by far the best thing in Muppets Most Wanted and he ensures Peabody is highly memorable. Peabody’s unflappable genius and endless skillsets present that rare character who hasn’t been custom fitted to a demographic. His many talents include attempting to entertain Penny’s parents, voiced by Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann, with his boundless musical talents; hypnotising them with a trick he learned “from a swami at the Begawan Giri in Ubud Bali”; winning Penny’s dad over with his chiropractic skills). He laso has a nice line in assured pronouncements (“Mandarin Chinese should be learned as it’s the language of the future”).


The show-stopping conclusion lacks the earlier inventiveness, but it’s to be expected of current "bigger is always better" approach to finales. Rob Minkoff, who nursed the project for more than a decade and seems to have a thing for anthropomorphic cross-species familial relationships (Stuart Little), generally satisfies the competing demands of story and studio (he had the Bullwinkle estate breathing over his shoulder). There are four credited writers, and it’s only occasionally that the bombardment of elements becomes a little too frenetic. He serves up the farce particularly well, as Peabody attempts to keep multiple personas and disappearing daughters from his dinner guests.


Unfortunately, as it means DreamWorks will be further encouraged to play it safe, Mr. Peabody and Sherman was a financial disappointment. It didn’t do anything like the box office the knuckle dragging The Croods did the same time the year before, and the studio has taken a write-down (as well as laying off staff). Did audiences just not want anything too taxing or off-the-wall? Or was it too different in terms of character types? Peabody made less than the also experimental (but not experimental enough) Rise of the Guardians and generic turkey Turbo.  It looks as if the inevitable The Croods 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3 will be the sad and desperate lifelines facing the studio going forward.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absen…

Yeah, she loused up one of the five best days of your life.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
(SPOILERS) The zeitgeist Best Picture Oscar winner is prone to falling from grace like no other. Often, they’re films with notable acting performances but themes that tend to appear antiquated or even slightly offensive in hindsight. Few extol the virtues of American Beauty the way they did twenty years ago, and Kramer vs. Kramer isn’t quite seen as exemplifying a sensitive and balanced examination of the fallout of divorce on children and their parents the way it was forty years previously. It remains a compelling film for the performances, but it’s difficult not to view it, despite the ameliorating effect of Meryl Streep (an effect she had to struggle to exert), as a vanity project of its star, and one that doesn’t do him any favours with hindsight and behind-the-scenes knowledge.