by Callum Petch (Screened: @jackanderson, Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I feel like I should clarify that headline by noting that I have not followed DreamWorks Animation in at least six long years. The last DreamWorks film I went to see at the cinema was Puss In Boots with a friend because we had expiring money-off vouchers, neither of us had seen a film in ages and there was nothing else on at all. Before that, the last one I saw was Kung Fu Panda, back in2008. I had just gotten sick of their brand of humour, which was juvenile and far too pop-culture heavy, their plots and characters, which were stock and dull with no attempt made to lift them above their starting points into something greater, their emotional depth, which could have been accurately replicated by attempting to talk to a popular airhead about what the saddest moment of their life was, and that gods. Damn. FRAKKIN’. SMIRK!
It’s a decision that I consequently held firm to, even as the company supposedly rose above the dreck that they had previously put out like Shark Tale and Over The Hedge and, gods forbid, Bee Movie and even as Pixar basically spent post-Toy Story 3 bottoming out in disappointingly spectacular fashion. However, in my ongoing quest to become Screened’s foremost expert in the realm of Western Animation, I realised that to simply pretend that the second biggest name in Western Animated Film doesn’t exist is a lifestyle choice that is no longer possible. So I resolved to begin again my relationship with DreamWorks Animation with this one, Mr. Peabody & Sherman which looked, in a word, cack.
As people with much more faith in movies can quite happily tell you, however, trailers are not always representative of the final product. A lesson I learned big time, here, for Mr. Peabody & Sherman is fun, funny, exciting and heartwarming, built as it is around a well-constructed, loving and believable father-son relationship at its centre.
Adapted from the Peabody’s Improbable History segments of the 1960s The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, our story follows Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) who is the world’s smartest and most talented being alive. He’s invented renewable energy sources, solved conflicts the globe over, can play any instrument at the literal drop of a hat and was the inventor of the fist-bump, planking and Zumba, among others. Basically, imagine the Steven Moffat version of Sherlock but in dog form and with about 80% less of the insufferable Mary Sue traits and you’re quite close. Peabody stumbles across a baby Sherman (Max Charles) abandoned in an alley and successfully campaigns to adopt the child for himself, raising Sherman throughout the years with the teaching assistance of the WAYBAC Machine, which can travel back through time.
As much fun as a feature-length collection of individual shorts of the two navigating their way through history would have been (the opening 10-or-so minutes are dedicated purely to their adventures in France circa the French Revolution and play out really rather close to the original shorts, just with more action), this set-up needs a story for some conflict! So Sherman is sent off to school, having reached that age, and immediately invokes the wrath of Penny (Ariel Winter) after demonstrating his superior-to-the-majority knowledge for facts. They fight, Sherman bites Penny, Peabody is threatened with child services taking Sherman away from him and so hosts a dinner to try and win over the angry parents of Penny and to force Sherman and Penny to make up. Instead, Penny pressures Sherman to show her the WAYBAC Machine and Peabody and Sherman end up having to race back through time to rescue her, lest her disappearance lead to Peabody losing Sherman.
In other words, it’s a lot of set-up for a “wacky trio of characters go on a time-travel escapade” but all of the set-up works for two key reasons. For one, the set-up is pared down to the essentials and only the essentials. The opening setpiece in Revolutionary France may be lengthy, but it ably sets-up the action dynamic and relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman, one’s a godlike genius and the other one is smart in terms of raw knowledge but is not too bright elsewhere, too susceptible to his childlike desires and constantly craves the love and reassurance of his adopted father. The circumstances and prior adventures of Peabody and Sherman are demonstrated in a reverse, almost-worldless montage (which, incidentally, is animated in a much more colourful CG-hand-drawn style that recalls Paperman and is gorgeous) that aims straight for the heart and does not miss. Sherman’s time at school threatens to introduce 9 zillion side characters to the story but they’re all instantly disposed of, along with the setting itself, once the Penny conflict is set up. It keeps things moving, keeps them pacey, keeps the focus tight, a tightness that sticks for the remainder of the film.
For two, the set-up makes the central relationship of the film, which again is that of Sherman and Mr. Peabody, feel full and fleshed out. It grounds proceedings, makes them real, invests emotionally and it’s the kind of emotion that pays off big time throughout. From the very second that Sherman wanders into frame, you know exactly what kind of relationship the duo has, how it’s a genuine relationship where the pair love and respect each other equally (if in their own separate ways) and it makes the lengths that one of them goes to rescue the other late-on in the film understandable. Key factor in wringing compassion and emotion from the audience in regards to your emotional core of the film is to put in the legwork beforehand which is something that Mr. Peabody & Sherman gets totally.
The emotional centre of the film, then, is predominately why it works. All of the characters are relatable, all of them are lovable and all of them clearly love each other in their own ways. Yes, even Penny who very quickly seems to get over her bullying hump and becomes an infinitely more enjoyable presence for it. It does work in other areas, though, so kids who aren’t so obviously attracted to heart-warming mushy-mush times have something else to latch onto. For example, it’s legitimately funny. Yes, there is the odd toilet humour gag and a running gag involving Sherman laughing at a Peabody pun and then abruptly going “I don’t get it” which did not start funny and does not get any funnier the more times it’s trotted out, but those are the exceptions. Instead, the film often alternates between a well-timed piece of physical comedy, a Peabody situational pun or history-based jokes that range from the broad (Peabody and Penny sneak into the Trojan Horse in their own miniature Trojan Horse) to the surprisingly intelligent (Penny planned ahead in her attempted marriage to King Tut and made sure to get everything in the event of his untimely death... well, until she learns what she’s in for in that instance). The gags are never mean-spirited, even when talk of disembowelment enters the field, and the level of jokes are evenly spread about the plain. There almost never seems to be a gag thrown in just to appease the parents in the cinema or the kids in the audience; it’s double-coding done right and that’s what makes the gags work.
As for the film’s action sequences, well this actually leads really well into talking about the animation and art style. Mr. Peabody & Sherman goes for a very stylised, almost rubbery kind of art-style, a halfway house between a clear throwback to the original designs from the Rocky & Bullwinkle days and classic squash-and-stretch cartoons; think Hotel Transylvania but more restrained. This, incidentally, can make it appear slightly generic in still images and even in motion, the movement and animation style again hitting a compromise between fluid and naturalistic and the kind of sudden, jerky movements that indicate characters acting quickly and manically. Instead, what sets this film apart is the sheer dynamism of its camera work and the proxemics the camera creates. To put it another way, this film is not content to just film a character performing an action on screen. Instead, the camera swoops, dives, uses spatial awareness to enliven proceedings. Instead of just cutting between separate shots to hold a conversation, the film will just as often simply swing the camera between the cast depending on who’s talking.
A cynic could likely quite rightly claim that all of these fancy camera tricks are simply to justify the 3D, but it adds a spark to the film. A live wire of sorts that jump starts pretty much any sequence, keeps the pace up, and it really pays dividends for the action sequences. They’re not complex or innovative, far from it; they’re predominately just chase scenes. However, they’re shot stylishly enough that they still remain engaging and exciting. And, sometimes, if the film is feeling particularly frisky, it will spring up a Sherlock-style visualisation of Mr. Peabody’s thought process in regards to how he’s going to get the gang out of their current predicament. The overlays are hand-drawn and they look great, but they only pop up about three times during the whole film and the sweeping camera means that they’re basically relegated to freeze-frame bonuses for the DVD release. It’s a cool concept, though, just one I’d like to have seen for more than 74 seconds (rough estimate).
In fact, whilst I’m going on about gripes, although Mr. Peabody & Sherman does spend the majority of its runtime keeping things pared down to the essentials, with every scene having a reason for existing that cannot be boiled down to “it’s been 10 minutes since the last action scene, we must rectify this mistake at once,” the film still can’t quite resist having one last action sequence to resolve the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun, it’s just that the film seemed to have been building to a climax that would have involved addressing the central relationship purely through words, rather than a chase through the modern-day city with the fate of time itself hanging in the balance and I find it kind of personally disappointing that the film chose to play it safe in that regard.
More problematic is the sudden appearance of a villain whose entire existence is basically to appear in the set-up and then turn up as the film seems to be wrapping up to elongate it by about another 15 to 20 minutes. The character in question, Mrs. Grunion, is ably played by an almost unrecognisable Allison Janney but she’s also the one-note eeeeevillll child services character who has no noticeable motivations for her hatred of Mr. Peabody and desire to take Sherman away from him. It’s final setpiece conflict for the sake of final setpiece conflict, essentially, and she could have been excised from the film without trouble. The film could even still have had its giant action finale, too! Also, now that I think about it, I don’t buy Penny’s switch from antagonistic bully to genuine friend with decent intentions. Don’t get me wrong, I more than bought it to make her character someone that wouldn’t be nearly insufferable to spend 92 minutes with, but it’s kind of like a switch was flipped or somebody late into the drafting process realised how much nicer a character she is in the film’s second half and just forgot to rewrite the first half, hand-waving it away with the one reason; a reason I have never encountered as an excuse for people’s behaviour to one another outside of fictional media ever, for the record. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is odd.
Folks, I often go into movies expecting to hate them but never wanting to hate them (after all, what does paying money to hate a movie get me except the loss of almost £8 and two and a half hours of my life). I want a film to surprise me, doubly so if everything showcased to me before I set foot into the cinema made it look like dung. Mr. Peabody & Sherman surprised me, it surprised the hell out of me, and I could not be happier. Here is an animated kids’ film that’s funny, exciting, fun and, crucially, endlessly charming and heartwarming. It doesn’t skimp out on the emotional legwork which is what makes it consistently engaging and helps elevate the film far above standard kids’ fare, nowadays. It could have wrapped up better and it’s not exactly going to set any worlds on fire, but it is the closest that I have seen DreamWorks Animation come to hitting a home run which is something I never thought I’d see in this lifetime!
So, if it’s been cold where you are recently, now you know. Hell has frozen over. DreamWorks Animation made a great frakkin’ film.
(Note: Do not ask me about the quality of the supposedly attached Rocky & Bullwinkle short, with Tom Kenny as Bullwinkle and a 96 year-old June Foray reprising her role as Rocky. I don’t know. As a Brit, it was not attached to my version of the film. I am unsatisfied with this development.)
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