DreamWorks Animation has established a brand, and it’s a mediocre one. Their goal is to turn out as much product as possible, and turn the hits into franchises. With the exception of How to Train Your Dragon, their movies feature lukewarm emotions, serviceable animation, a dearth of style, and humor that’s clearly delineated between jokes for kids and jokes for adults. Kids tend to eat these movies up, and they’re tolerable enough for parents. The studio’s latest, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, is yet another movie adults will have to tolerate as a smattering of weird, fun, and inspired moments occasionally break into a rote, forgettable family film.
Based off the animated shorts from The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is about a brilliant, talking dog (Ty Burrell) who adopts a boy, Sherman (Max Charles), and the two travel through time on the WABAC (pronounced “way back”) machine. In this feature-length adaptation, seven-year-old Sherman is bullied at his school by awful human being Penny (Ariel Winter) after she calls him a dog in a fit of jealousy because he’s good at history. Sherman retaliates by biting Penny, child services worker Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney) is called in, and Peabody tries to mend the rift by throwing a dinner party. Sherman, now eager to impress Penny, takes her on a ride in the WABAC, which sets of a chain of events as Peabody, Sherman, and Penny must travel through various time periods to undo the damage caused by the children.
However, undoing this damage isn’t much of an obstacle for Peabody because he’s just shy of having godlike powers. Because of his intellect, Peabody not only outsmarts every situation, and he also has the athletic prowess to defeat any foe. He’s almost always cool under pressure, and his biggest headache is Sherman, who doesn’t have Peabody’s smarts. This back and forth between Peabody solving a problem only to have Sherman or Penny create a new one sends the movie into a process that drives action scenes that rarely challenge to the super dog. Their best payoff is inching forward the emotional relationship between Peabody and Sherman.
But this relationship always seems like an afterthought. Peabody is trying to make up for never being adopted because he was too smart, but he doesn’t know how to show affection towards Sherman. When Sherman tells Peabody early in the film, “I love you,” Peabody replies, “And I’m particularly fond of you as well.” It’s a good joke, but the film fumbles the emotional impact because it gets hooked into another emotional direction as Sherman wrestles with being adopted by a dog, which is a bit odd considering that the audience has already accepted that premise.
The movie is at it best when it just wants to be a goofy thrill ride, and that’s where kids will get the most enjoyment. Like most DreamWorks Animation films, it relies heavily on fart jokes (there were five or six by my count), slapstick, and funny voices. But then it will abruptly switch gears and drop in a joke aimed solely at adults (e.g. a Bill Clinton sex scandal reference). The joke will go over kids’ head, but it also feels like a softball for the adults. The only jokes that seem to land squarely in between are the weird ones like Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci)’s creepy mechanical child.
DreamWorks Animation’s movies are rarely joyless affairs. They’re just nothing special, and when the studio is so bent on releasing multiple movies every year, they become the standard for animated family films. They leave a lasting influence on kids, and whereas my generation’s animated movies—films such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King—had a wide appeal and continue to hold up today, DreamWorks Animation movies are made to last only because the studio keeps making them. Perhaps films like Mr. Peabody & Sherman will have lasting appeal to young viewers (the kids at my screening ate it up), and at best this one will encourage children to seek out the charming source material. But in DreamWorks Animation’s machine, the property loses a piece of its identity, and is subsumed into a machine that puts more of an emphasis on being hip and easy rather than emotional and enduring.