Paws of nature
This delightful tale of a dog and his boy will leave you howling with laughter.
ANIMATED feature films may be only for kids, but they are probably the only kind of film that actually benefits from Hollywood’s system of making movies by committee. Because they cost so much to make, almost every single verbal and visual joke or detail in these things has to go through a panel of studio executives and script doctors before making it into the finished product. And because so much attention is paid to so many details, these animated extravaganzas are rarely less than witty and funny.
Mr Peabody & Sherman, the latest animated film from director Rob Minkoff (who also made The Lion King), is no different. Based on Peabody’s Improbable History, which was a five-minute segment on the Rocky And His Friends cartoon series (which later became The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show) from about 50 years ago, this 3D film is further proof of DreamWorks Animation’s increasing deftness at producing films that may one day approach the greatness of those beloved Pixar movies.
A story about a dog and his boy (not vice versa), it centres on the relationship between genius dog Mr Peabody (perfectly voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) and his adopted human son Sherman (voiced by Max Charles). Like in the original cartoon, Peabody has invented a time machine called the Wabac (pronounced “way back”, of course), in which he and Sherman go on adventures together and learn a thing or two about life and history.
A possible speed bump appears when Sherman has problems at school with a bully named Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter, also from Modern Family) who calls Sherman a “dog” to insult him. He retaliates, and brings another problem in the form of Miss Grunion (Allison Janney, gleefully doing her best at voicing a shrew), who threatens to take Sherman away from Peabody.
Unlike in the original cartoons where Peabody and Sherman’s father-and-son relationship was never made a big deal and was simply accepted as a fact of life (it may have even been closer to pet ownership actually), it is quite fascinating to see it brought front and centre here in this glossy, big-budget flick that’s obviously aimed at kids.
If you were to even look a bit closer at the subtext, it’s almost like a case is being made for tolerance and acceptance of alternative families, reflecting and suggesting contemporary dilemmas. And in an age where intolerance is still very much alive and well (even in America), it just warms the heart to see such an important and wonderful message being brought to the fore in a family film.
But a good message is useless if it’s not delivered well, and true to tradition, Peabody doesn’t skimp on his trademark hilariously awful puns (a particular favourite happens in ancient Egypt, where Peabody tells Sherman that the pyramids were designed by “some old Giza”). The animation is crisp, the backgrounds wonderfully detailed, and the action sequences exciting enough for even the adults who are being made to pay for and sit through the movie by their kids. The humour is clever and ironic enough to please both young and old viewers, and the story moves at a zippy enough speed to not bore even the most attention-challenged cinemagoer.
What makes this one a bit more special compared to other slick animated productions are the aforementioned subtext and its insistence on championing the virtues of intellectual curiosity.
It may take liberties with some of its historical facts (like Leonardo Da Vinci coming up with a prototype flying machine), but it doesn’t shy away from wanting to teach those in attendance a few history lessons. Those already in the know will also delight in spotting throwaway sight gags and historical clues in blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em moments scattered throughout the film’s many witty historical set-pieces (like the one involving a certain babyin the bulrushes).
Some reviewers have commented that the film may be too smart for its own good, but since when is that such a bad thing? Isn’t it better for a film to be too smart rather than just plain dumb? In short, it not only celebrates the two brainy main characters (Sherman is also a smart kid, even if he sometimes doesn’t get Peabody’s puns), but it also strives to make those in the audience a little bit brainier too, while providing them with the expected dose of blockbuster entertainment. Given that this is a product of the Hollywood entertainment machine, I don’t think that we could (or should) ask for much more.