Review: ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ errs by favoring sentiment over laughs

When I was a kid and Saturday morning was still appointment viewing for me with hours and hours of cartoons on all three networks, I would frequently get up before the sun was even up. I'd get myself a giant bowl of whatever sugary cereal was my poison of choice at the time and plant myself in front of the set so that I had control over whatever was going to be watched well before my sister woke up. There were many weeks where I was up and ready to go before the networks even began their programming, and by default, I would put on the only cartoons playing at that hour, a giant re-run block of “Rocky & Bullwinkle.”

At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the lunacy of the Jay Ward productions, and it was only as I got older that I began to understand the silly word play and the gleeful demolition of storytelling cliche that were the cornerstones of all of the different cartoons that existed under that broader umbrella. I grew to particularly enjoy the absurdist take on history that was represented by the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” cartoons, and when DreamWorks Animation announced a feature film version a few years ago, I hoped they would honor the spirit of the original.

For the most part, they did. Craig Wright's script embraces the verbal silliness of the source material, and the film is packed with positively horrible puns that delighted me just as much as they made me groan. Where they attempt to play things differently is in the primary relationship between Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) and Sherman (Max Charles), his boy. I always loved the description of Sherman as his “pet boy,” and while they don't use that phrase in the film, they do make their unusual relationship the entire point of the movie. Sherman is Peabody's adopted son, and the two of them don't see anything unusual at all about their relationship. It's not until Sherman begins school that it becomes an issue, thanks to a little girl named Penny (Ariel Winter) who calls Sherman a dog.

Sherman's response is to bite her, which seems to prove her point, and it's up to Mr. Peabody to try to smooth over the situation. He invites her parents over for dinner, hoping to win them over before Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), a social services worker, shows up to remove Sherman from the home. She firmly believes that no dog should be a parent, and she's determined to prove it. At this point, if you start to see some very distinct parallels between this and real life, that's because it seems clear that is the point of the film. As we engage in a cultural discussion about the definition of a family, and as we contend with panic about what will happen to kids who are raised in untraditional households, it feels like a film like this can play a valuable role in helping kids get their heads around some pretty big ideas.

The film plays more as a broad romp than as a social treatise, of course, and it is funny in many places. But the more I've thought about the film, the more I wonder who it is at DreamWorks Animation who was adopted. After all, when you look at the films that Walt Disney made, the mother is frequently missing altogether or killed early on, and that can't be a coincidence. Disney's own mother died in an accident that he saw as his own fault, and his feelings about that informed every film he made in some way. Between the “Kung-Fu Panda” movies, the second one in particular, and this film, someone at DreamWorks seems to be working out their own feelings about adoption in a major way. Maybe I'm sensitive to it because I'm adopted myself, and it's not something I see handled in films often, but it certainly seems to be a recurrent idea or theme for the studio. I think in some ways, it overpowers this film. I don't dislike the approach they take, but I wish they'd found a way to make it a more subtle part of the overall picture. Instead, it feels like they err in favor of sentiment over comedy, and that's a pretty radical departure from the silly anarchy of the cartoons that Jay Ward produced.

Rob Minkoff, who directed “The Lion King” and “Stuart Little,” seems more comfortable with the sweet and the emotional than with the comedy, and that's a problem. When you've got a comedy weapon like Patrick Warburton or heavy hitters like Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert, you need to play to their strengths. Give them funny material. Build characters that they can fully inhabit and bring to life. You've got Stanley Tucci and Lake Bell as Leonardo da Vinci and Mona Lisa? Great! You make a few quick jokes about her smile and you're done? Not so great! I mean, my god, they have no less than Mel Brooks himself playing Albert Einstein, and it doesn't feel like they give him a single great line to deliver. The best decision they made about the casting of the film has to do with the kids. Ariel Winter and Max Charles give spirited and engaging performances as Penny and Sherman, and casting people that young is great. They feel like real kids, and Charles has great chemistry with Ty Burrell, who plays this role beautifully.

The film is technically very slick, attempting to bring the distinct visual stylization of the Jay Ward cartoons into a 3D CG environment, and the attempt is largely successful. The film plays with some funny ideas about time travel, and like any good time travel movie, it flirts with paradox and what happens when you violate the rules of time and space. It doesn't really go far enough with those ideas, though, and the end result is too often timid instead of brash and silly. For everything the film does right, it seems to do one other thing wrong, and the end result may not please either young or old audiences completely. If anything, the film is frustrating because it's obvious that they got close to getting it all right, but fell just a little bit short.

If only someone had a time machine they could use to go back and show the finished film to the creative team two years ago so they could fix all the things that don't work. Ah, if only.

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” opens in theaters everywhere today.