2014 has been an excellent year for animation. The Wind Rises, The Lego Movie, and the improbably good The Nut Job have all delivered and sequels to the delightful How to Train Your Dragon and Rio are still on the way.
Continuing this positive trend is Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Rob Minkoff’s smart, fun, and funny take on the Jay Ward cartoon characters of the early ‘60s. Though their more famous Rocky & His Friends cohorts flopped in their big screen transition, the world’s smartest dog (voiced by Ty Burrell) and his adopted human son (Max Charles) take to these new surroundings with a natural ease as if they existed there all along.
Like its lead character, the film is highly and refreshingly intelligent. Craig Wright’s cultured dialogue and Dreamworks animation’s rich imagery combine to create a self-contained cultural experience that’s a treat for kids and adults. Among its references are “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Purple Haze,” “Einstein on the Beach,” “Spartacus,” “A Brief History of Time,” and Bill Clinton’s misdeeds, plus Peabody isn’t afraid of a good historical pun, nearly all of which connect.
Such smarts backfire, however, in the book smart canine’s parenting techniques. Out of touch but well intentioned dog father that he is, Peabody teaches his son about history by taking him there, literally traveling through time in his WABAC machine and interacting with the likes of Marie Antoinette, George Washington, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Packed with this advanced knowledge, when seven-year-old Sherman attends his first day of school, his know-it-all nature quickly casts him as an outsider and irks school bully Penny (Ariel Winter). Following a skirmish between the two children, Peabody arranges a supper with Penny’s parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert), but when Sherman introduces his classmate to the time machine, it sets off problems that father and son must patch up together.
Stops in ancient Egypt, the Italian renaissance, and Troy yield plenty of humor, heart, and excitement as the men come to a greater mutual understanding and Sherman tries to earn a friend. While this rapid-fire entertainment is to be expected in animation, Mr. Peabody & Sherman frequently operates on a higher level, none more exceptional than a montage set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.”
With Peabody reminiscing on his time with Sherman while glancing at a wall of photographs, the impeccably timed (and surprisingly prestigious) tune vaults the film into elite Pixar territory. Flatulence jokes and general tomfoolery necessary for younger viewers threaten to pop the sophisticated bubble, but on the whole the film delivers enough mature moments of this caliber to stand apart.
On top of the material’s strengths, Mr. Peabody & Sherman may be the first animated film to feature 3D that feels intentional and is utilized somewhat frequently. Copious knives and other weaponry jut out and add to both the danger and the thoughtful frame angles and movements that are more commonly associated with ambitious live-action cinematography. All told, it’s close to the ideal elementary school field trip movie, one in which youngsters and educators alike may learn a lot and have fun in the process. Considering this same time last year was populated with the mediocrity of The Croods, Minkoff’s film is even more of a victory.
Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.