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‘Peabody’ not best use of time

3/13/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is now playing in movie theaters.
Photo courtesy of DreamWorks Animation LLC
The new animated film “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” would not have worked if it were exactly like the classic cartoon upon which it was based.

That’s not to say the movie, as it is, entirely works, either. It has some cute moments, but a lot of its humor falls flat and its ending is a mess. Let’s just say the puzzle that is a full-length movie about a time-traveling dog and his adopted boy is still waiting to be solved.

The original Mr. Peabody cartoons, which first appeared in 1959, weren’t asked to carry a half-hour show, let alone a movie. The “Peabody’s Improbable History” episodes were short adventures that were part of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” and the plots didn’t deviate: Mr. Peabody, a brilliant and erudite pooch, would take his human son Sherman on a trip back in time via his WABAC machine. They would meet a clueless historical figure caught in a terrible bind. Peabody would save the day, close the episode with a pun and, after the cereal ads, it would be time for Bullwinkle’s Poetry Corner. Except for the atypical first episode, the cartoons were free of hugging, reflection and emotional breakthroughs. It was silly humor done in a very smart way.

The movie, directed by Rob Minkoff, begins much like that first Peabody episode, with the learned dog (voiced by Ty Burrell) introducing himself and then going on a WABAC trip with his human son, Sherman (Max Charles). This time, they visit a pastry-loving Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser), and, not surprisingly, trouble follows. Like other action sequences in the movie, it zooms along at a lively pace with the standard close calls and chases, but — at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man — it didn’t feel like the Mr. Peabody cartoons I know and love. Whether it was because the comedic timing was a bit off or the dialogue lacked the wit of the original, it felt like a pale copy.

Maybe this doesn’t matter to the movie’s target audience. At the Saturday matinee I attended, the youngsters giggled at the film’s “naughty” humor, such as when Sherman made note of Peabody saying “booby trap.” The little ones’ reaction to Penny (Ariel Winter), Sherman’s adventurous if initially callous schoolmate, is unknown, but perhaps it registered with them that Penny, like, Sherman, is no dummy. The movie deserves credit for making the main characters smart but flawed. Due to their particular idiosyncrasies, the relationship between dog and boy undergoes strains, and it’s not just because Sherman doesn’t get his father’s puns.

The movie is not as consistently funny as the recent “LEGO Movie,” though a few scenes, such as a jaunt to ancient Egypt, are clever and amusing. Neither of those adjectives describe the movie’s conclusion, which throws together a little bit of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a dash of “Doctor Who” and a whole lot of “let’s move at a breakneck speed and leave all logic and clarity behind.”

In my day, Mr. Peabody spent as much time worrying about his parenting skills as the Tasmanian Devil did about his anger issues. But 2014 is a different time and big-budget CGI movies are different animals, with emotional arcs and heart-tugging moments. Characters can’t just love to learn; they also have to learn to love.

The movie, currently in theaters, is rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.

Two and 1/2 Stars (out of four)

 

Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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