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‘Mr. Peabody and Sherman’ put together well

By Christopher K. Conner

Though the original run of “The Bullwinkle Show” ended almost fifty years ago, decades of rebroadcasts and syndication have ensured that successive generations have experienced the quirky characters and self-referential humor of the series.

One of the stranger segments, “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History,” is now a Dreamworks Animation feature film “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.”

Leaving behind the choppy and inexpensively produced animation characteristic of Rocky and Bullwinkle,  “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is rendered in computer generated graphics and released in 3D. The story doesn’t venture too far from the original. Mr. Peabody is still a super intelligent, multi-talented canine with glasses and Sherman is his adopted son. And the WABAC machine is there, taking the duo back in time.

Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) leads Sherman (Max Charles) to the time just before the French Revolution.  There, they attend a party with aristocrats and learn the extent to which Marie Antoinette likes cake. After having his own piece of cake taken to give to the queen, Sherman wanders into the kitchen looking for more. Mr. Peabody, knowing that they need to leave before the impending revolution searches frantically for Sherman, finding him too late.

The two are captured and Mr. Peabody taken to the guillotine by Robespierre. Staging an improbable escape, Mr. Peabody and Sherman make it to the WABAC and return to their own time. The next day is Sherman’s first day at school.

In school, Sherman manages to offend a popular girl, Penny Peterson, by pointing out that stories of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree and saying he could never tell a lie are apocryphal. Penny gets back at Sherman in the lunch room by making fun of the fact his father is a dog. Ultimately the two get into a fight and Sherman bites Penny.

Unprepared for this turn of events and fearing that the social service worker Ms. Grunion will have Sherman removed from his care, Mr. Peabody plans a dinner party with the Petersons. While Mr. Peabody wins over the skeptical Paul Peterson (Steven Colbert), Sherman and Penny are left alone in Sherman’s room.

Despite Mr. Peabody’s express instructions not to mention the WABAC, Sherman has to prove to Penny that he has met George Washington and isn’t a liar, Sherman takes Penny to see the time machine. Once inside Penny forces Sherman to go back in time, where the two end up in Egypt during the reign of King Tutankhamen. Penny decides to stay engaged to Tut, forcing Sherman to return alone and tell Mr. Peabody what has happened.

Mr. Peabody hypnotizes Penny’s parents to buy time so he and Sherman can return to the past and bring Penny back. When they find her, Penny is reluctant to leave the life of an Egyptian queen, but once she learns that Tut doesn’t live long, and that she’d be mummified with him, she changes her mind and leaves with Mr. Peabody.

Before they can return, the trio get side-tracked and are forced to Ancient Troy where Sherman joins Agamemnon’s army inside the Trojan Horse. Penny and Mr. Peabody try to convince Sherman to return with them, but he refuses. Once he experiences the violence inside Troy, though, Sherman changes his mind. Unfortunately the horse is sent rolling towards a cliff and Mr. Peabody sacrifices himself to save Sherman and Penny from the drop.

Sherman and Penny return to the WABAC and decide to go back to the night of the dinner party to find out from Mr. Peabody what to do. In doing so, Sherman breaks one of the primary rules of the WABAC and goes to a time where he might encounter himself. The two Shermans begin a breakdown of time and space that results in parts of the past appearing in the current time. If that weren’t bad enough, Ms. Grunion decides to take Sherman from Mr. Peabody and the two are forced to try and solve the unraveling of time while being pursued by police.

“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” manages to pull the short segments of “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History” into a full-length feature without stretching too far. It also doesn’t drift far from the formula that made the originals unique. Mr. Peabody is still there with bad puns that Sherman doesn’t understand. The past that they visit is just off enough from the true history to remind us that the WABAC takes the duo to history as it should have been, not how it was.

The change in animation styles may be a little disheartening, but is entirely understandable. I am not sure that ninety minutes of retro animation would have done anything for the film, and would have been completely pointless in 3D. 

While I’m generally not a fan of re-imagined or modernized bits of nostalgic media, “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” was an exception. It was put together well, and preserved some of the multi-layered comedy of the originals. The kids were impressed with the film and didn’t seem to notice the jokes that went over their heads.

I should compare my kids’ reactions to a few of the original “Improbable History” shorts against the slick 3D CGI of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” Watching the film, Leah and Patrick were pulled into the action and hardly touched the popcorn. As much as I liked the originals, I doubt they’ll have the same impact.

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