Dreamworks has never had a Pixar rivalling film – save for maybe Shrek 2, which came very close. So what did they do for their latest throwback? Employ some remarkable tactics to make Mr Peabody and Sherman an absolute scream.
The Lion King director Rob Minkoff, a classic cartoon strip parent and child and the 3rd biggest animation studio can’t really go too far wrong can they? Well no, they can’t, as it turns out.
A bit of background: Mr Peabody and Sherman were the cartoon featured in the 60’s animated Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series, who made regular appearances in Peabody’s Improbable History segments. History lesson over.
Mr Peabody is the smartest, highest achieving and most inventive dog on earth, period. Voiced here by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell with love, sophistication and delicately applied empathy.
Peabody is the adoptive father of 7-year-old Sherman (voiced by Max Charles – The Amazing Spider-Man) who is – like any boy of his age – inquisitive, cute and rather adorably (funnily) naive. Having an adoptive father in a dog proves an interesting journey for Sherman – whilst providing several hurdles for him to jump due to the unconventional set-up. Which forms the emotional crux of the story: “You’re not my real father, you’re just a dog.” Ouch!
Minkoff’s experience with father-son relationship woes echoes throughout the story-line – with a familiar fall out as son disobeys father.
The story opens with Peabody’s narration – introducing himself whilst lauding his many achievements and accolades – a 2 time Olympic medalist, Harvard graduate, and the inventor of Auto-Tune and the best looking time machine in movie history. Doc Brown can keep his DeLorean!
The time machine is called the Wayback.
Enter Sherman. Who enquires where they are venturing to today – in the Wayback of course – though is corrected by Peabody that the question should be “When…?”. They board the spherical red globe that is the Wayback and travel back – in spectacular fashion – to the moments before the French Revolution. Here, we meet Marie Antoinette in a hilarious cameo appearance.
As soon as they land in 1789 the blistering, explosive action kicks off in the stunningly realised Palace of Versailles. It’s here that we board the wonderfully animated, high octane, rollercoaster ride as Peabody and Sherman blast across the space time continuum. The following day, Sherman begins his first day of school – however right now in France, Peabody is attempting to educate and prepare Sherman on the history of the world in the most accurate and exhilarating fashion imaginable. Including a battle with Robespierre.
Sherman’s first day of school, where he aces a question about George Washington in class, is blighted by the school’s rich kid bully – Penny – who despises Sherman’s know-it-all intelligence and calls him a dog. Not nice! Sherman’s response is perfectly apt; he bites her.
A Child Services investigation ensues, under the watchful eye of the nasty Ms Grunion (Allsion Janney – Finding Nemo, Juno) – and having a dog for a father only makes the bone harder to chew.
A visit from Penny and her parents to Peabody’s stunning penthouse apartment results in Sherman showing Penny the Wayback and losing her in Ancient Egypt.
No more of the plot shall I reveal.
As the story continues, Peabody faces losing Sherman to Child Services and we witness a nostalgic, beautifully heartfelt, flashback sequence which shows how the unlikely pair became father and son.
Sherman is 7. He is awkward, naive, excitable, inquisitive, adorable and wonderfully innocent. Sherman puts me in mind of 10-year-old Dash from Pixar’s The Incredibles. He exudes a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and time travel, learning and impressing his dad. He rarely understands his father’s sarcastic outbursts, exclaiming “I don’t get it!” repeatedly throughout the film – which never gets boring.
Sherman’s fiery red hair and glasses are an ode to the geeky environment he has grown up in.
Mr Peabody is superbly intelligent, dresses only in a bow tie – usually – though he does model some rather fetching get-ups throughout time. He walks and talks with an almost aristocratic aplomb. His brilliant mind is never condescending, though at times he is fiercely intimidating.
Ty Burrell’s voice work is unbelievably pitch perfect – with an emotional disconnect that is not easy to carry off.
Across the space-time continuum we meet several of Peabody’s historical friends – in George Washington, (Stanley Tucci’s) Leonardo da Vinci and the actual Mona (Moaner) Lisa.
The period settings are incredibly beautifully animated; with immaculate, sumptuous detailing in Italy, France, Troy and Egypt all looking amazing.
Minkoff handles the flurry of action sequences with a steady hand; eye-popping CGI pyrotechnics keep the pulse racing throughout – pausing briefly for Freudian speeches occasionally. Craig Wright’s (Lost, Six Feet Under) spritely, intelligently written screenplay delivers fun, clever Freudian references and blends neatly heartfelt scenes with perfect ease.
The wit, pace and feelings behind this Pixar-level digitally animated comedy adventure deliver a blend of fun, time travel and a loving father-son story to match the best. Beautiful animation and a talented voice cast present this blistering clever film to its 90 minute destination wonderfully.
I only have one niggle, as all critics must – I wanted a villain. A REAL threatening villain. Child Services was a scary prospect, but sometimes I like having a villain to root for. Call me a sadist. But the inevitable sequel needs to give me a real villain.
* * * * (4 stars)