I really don't want to come off like a grouch. I like to think that I'm not one of those people morally opposed to remakes or modern reinterpretations of things because "they don't fit the spirit of the original" or they're "just not how I pictured it". I am (hypothetically) open to the idea that each generation ought to interpret stories for their own cultural milieu. I'm so down with that. Sort of.
But the fact of the matter is, sometimes I just don't like remakes. I don't think they add anything new to the original, or I think they're so different that they might as well just be their own thing already, or they get the source material so wrong it makes me want to tear out my hair*. I want to be chill but I am not. I am not chill. I have no chill. I have never been chill.
With that in mind, I have to admit that I didn't really like Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Not because I have any particular nostalgia for the original cartoons - Mr. Peabody's Improbable History, which ran in the act breaks of old Rocky and Bullwinkle episodes - but more out of a sense that whatever I was expecting from a reboot of the Peabody and Sherman franchise, it wasn't this. This movie was both trying way too hard and also not trying at all, and somehow it made a mess of a film that was okay, but failed to reach the transcendence it so clearly wanted.
So, to set the groundwork, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a big budget animated film that came out in 2014. The film is based on the same premise as its originating cartoon: that Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell), a super-smart dog, has subverted the usual order of things and adopted a boy, Sherman (Max Charles). He won the right in a Supreme Court hearing years ago and has been raising Sherman as his own ever since.
The story picks up when Sherman is about seven years old. Mr. Peabody is by all measures a pretty good father. A little emotionally aloof, sure, but a good dad. He's a brilliant scientist, inventor, artist, musician, and kind of everything, so Sherman is very advanced for his age. We come in as Sherman is about to start his very first day at a new school. Mr. Peabody is obviously verklempt over sending his boy off without him for the first time, and even gives Sherman a dog whistle he can use to contact him.
Things don't go very well on Sherman's first day though. After showing up the class know-it-all with his knowledge of history (thanks to Mr. Peabody's time machine, the WABAC), Sherman finds himself in big trouble with Penny (Ariel Winters). Penny doesn't like Sherman. Not one bit. In fact she doesn't like him so much that she bullies him about his dad and when Sherman gets defensive, effectively starts a fight with him. Sherman overreacts, of course, and bites her.
Which is not good. The human son of a dog just bit another kid. Not good at all. The principal is called, Penny's parents (played hilariously by Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) are called, and even a social worker named Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney, having way to much fun as per usual) comes into the picture. The writing on the wall is clear: one more slipup from Sherman and Mr. Peabody is going to lose custody. He is, after all, a dog.
Sherman naturally knows none of this. All he knows is that he bit Penny and he shouldn't have done that and now Mr. Peabody is having a dinner party for Penny and her parents to make it all okay. While Mr. Peabody expertly wins over Penny's parents with his ridiculous skills, Penny and Sherman sort of glare at each other in silence. At least, that is, until Sherman gets a terrible idea. Penny hates him, but she loves history! Why not show her the WABAC machine!
Everyone saw this coming a mile away.
Penny naturally can't stand just looking at the WABAC and not doing anything about it, so a few minutes later Sherman has to run in and admit to Mr. Peabody that he lost Penny in Ancient Egypt. And so our story actually begins. Mr. Peabody hypnotizes Penny's parents and runs with Sherman to go get Penny, but then the WABAC runs out of gas after they get her and they have to tool around in Florence, Italy with Leonardo da Vinci for a while, trying to make the Mona Lisa smile, which gives plenty of time for Penny and Sherman to bond, and for Penny to tell Sherman that Ms. Grunion is trying to take him away from Mr. Peabody.
Sherman freaks out, of course, because Mr. Peabody never told him and because it appears Sherman has some deep-seated and not entirely unfounded abandonment issues. He was, after all, very literally abandoned by his birth parents. When the WABAC takes off again, it nearly gets sucked into a blackhole and instead of the present spits them out in Ancient Troy, where Sherman decides to join the Greek Army in the Trojan Horse and fight in the Trojan War. Mr. Peabody of course forbids it, but Sherman has decided to prove to his dad how capable he is. It does not end well.
So chaos ensues. Sherman and Penny pop in and tell Mr. Peabody what happened, but then there are two Shermans, and then two Mr. Peabodys, and somewhere in there Penny's parents freak out and Ms. Grunion shows up and it's all just a mess. Eventually Sherman and Mr. Peabody rejoin with their doubles, just in time for Ms. Grunion to take Sherman away, Mr. Peabody to bite her, and a giant wormhole to open over New York.
Blah blah blah, the third act of the film involves all the historical figures we've met so far sort of dogpiling onto each other in New York while Mr. Peabody and Sherman try to close the wormhole and escape Ms. Grunion. Eventually Sherman has to give a "stirring" speech about how if being a dog means being like Mr. Peabody, then he's proud to call himself a dog.
This is a scene that I can only assume the animators meant to be rather genuinely heartfelt but instead feels kind of confusing and bizarre. But okay. Sure. You're a dog.
Since there are all kinds of historical figures milling about at the moment, George Washington himself steps up for a minute, quotes the Declaration of Independence (which they imply he wrote, but he did not) and fixes it. He doesn't fix it so that it defines black people as humans, but he does decide to include dogs as having rights. Classy.
So all that's left to do is close the wormhole, which they do, and celebrate. All very tidy and nice. Sherman and Mr. Peabody learned their lessons about communicating with each other and expressing their feelings (I guess that was the point?) and Penny is less of a bitch now. Ms. Grunion gets sucked up into the wormhole and implicitly coerced into marrying Agamemnon of the Greeks, which is played for laughs but kind of really discomfiting actually. And that's how the movie ends.
I suppose that if I had to compare this film to another animated flick from the past few years, I'd have to say it reminds me of Hotel Transylvania. It's not awful, by any means, and a lot of the set pieces are fun and cool. But the emotional core of the film, though it's clearly trying to be there, just isn't working.
I can accept that Sherman and Mr. Peabody are a family unit who love each other. I really appreciate that the movie didn't try to shoehorn in some "sexy dog" or something for Mr. Peabody to be attracted to. I like that it focused on their relationship, but there was something really frustrating about how the movie handled all the emotional content. Mostly, it didn't work because the emotional content was really thin.
Mr. Peabody is a dog and the world is morally opposed to him adopting a human child. I can get that, that makes sense. But what doesn't make sense is how Sherman reacts to finding out that Mr. Peabody didn't tell him a social worker wanted to take him away. His response, anger at Mr. Peabody, could be made to work in the context of a traumatized child lashing out, but here just feels petulant and misinformed. Sherman's eventual realization that all the reasons Mr. Peabody is in trouble are his fault isn't so much touching and sad as it is really obvious and something that should have occurred to the kid about fifteen minutes into the film.
In other words, the movie has to stretch in order to create emotional conflict between the leads, but then it fails to do any work at all in trying to explain why Penny changes her heart so thoroughly about Mr. Peabody and Sherman, or how a single New York City child services officer plans to overrule the Supreme Court. The climactic triumph of having Mr. Peabody and Sherman save the city from the wormhole is about as scary as the prospect that Mr. Peabody's dinner is going to burn, because none of the emotional stuff matters enough to us as an audience for it to make a difference either way.
All of this isn't even getting into the frustration I felt over the regressive gender politics in this film. I mean, not only is Penny the single most useless character I have seen in years, if not ever, we are also introduced to literally only two female historical figures. Two. There is a world of men that can pop out of the portal, but for women we get Marie Antoinette (a giggling caricature who eats cakes and wiggles her feet) and Mona Lisa (a grump). That's it. That's the sum total of women from history who we get to meet.
It's so annoying. Infuriating even. Oh, and none of the historical figures are non-white except for King Tut, who Penny agrees to marry before realizing that if she does she'll be buried with him when he dies in a few years. It reinforces the idea that history is something done by white men and white men alone, and that with Penny being useless, Ms. Grunion being evil, and none of the other women being big enough characters to care about, women just don't matter to this story.
I am gritting my teeth and grinding them slightly, even though you can't see me.
Overall, I want to like modern reinterpretations of old media, but only if they can make it better. This doesn't make Mr. Peabody's Improbable History better. It just sort of makes it shinier and gives it a bigger budget. While I respect the attempt to work in an emotional plot, that doesn't work either, sadly, leaving the film feeling like the only thing that landed were the jokes, and man cannot live by jokes alone. And neither can dogs.
*Looking at you, JJ Abrams' Star Trek.
**Even for a children's animated film, Penny is pretty useless. She contributes literally nothing to the story except getting Sherman in trouble or getting trapped somewhere and needing to be rescued. Seriously.