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“Lots of heroes have father issues,” declares the ancient Greek warrior Agamemnon in the delightful, new animated film, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.”
So do far, far too many cartoon films, which seem to keep going back to this well again and again and again, as if there’s no other plot line even available.
But rarely do these father issues resolve so well as in “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” a vividly animated, often funny and values-affirming new movie from DreamWorks.
What’s more, it’s a movie that has entertainment value for both children and adults. I recall, for example, I was one of the few in the theater to laugh when Agamemnon joked that family Christimases were no fun at Oedipus’ house; but Leonardo da Vinci’s struggle to get Mona Lisa to smile brought a chuckle from even the smallest in attendance.
The story is a loose modernization of the classic “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments, which appeared in the animated Rocky and Bullwinkle shows in the 1950s and ’60s.
The film version follows a Harvard-educated, genius, talking dog named Mr. Peabody, who discovers and adopts an orphaned boy named Sherman. With his time-traveling WABAC machine, Mr. Peabody takes his son through history, meeting the famous men and women of the past and giving his son invaluable lessons.
For some reason, however, it comes time for Sherman’s first day of school (with a WABAC machine enriching the boy’s education, I would think homeschooling might be a better choice, but I digress), and the young son of a nerdy dog predictably gets a heaping dose of childhood bullying.
But when the bullying leads to a fight, a child protection worker with a grudge puts the pressure on Mr. Peabody to prove he can be a father to Sherman.
Despite the startling conflict premise, the plot then romps gleefully through ancient Egypt, the Trojan War, the French Revolution and the Renaissance in a gorgeous rendering (I wish I had seen it in 3-D) of these historic scenes, replete with wildly exaggerated, comic characters.
For much of the film, audiences see Mr. Peabody’s failures as a parent come to life, his overprotectiveness, his perfectionism and his lack of faith in his son. For a while I wondered if this film was going to follow the formula of parent-bashing that too many animated features exhibit.
But to my pleasant surprise, like the fantastic movie “Brave” from 2012, the climax of the film reveals both parent and child will need to recognize their errors to reach a true reconciliation. In fact, the grand finale, moral-of-the-story speech is a tribute to a father’s love.
“He never turns his back on you,” Sherman declares of his dad. “He picks you up when you fall down. He loves you no matter many times you mess up.”
It’s a touching moment and the clear message of this movie, which suffers from some plot holes and isn’t exactly a classic, but nonetheless is lovely, entertaining, values-affirming and a decent choice for family film fare.
- “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is rated PG, but not for profanity, the most colorful phrases being a “booby trap” and a reference to a “butt.”
- The film does have some violent and potentially frightening scenes, however, including a rather intimidating child services worker, a lunchroom school fight, a guillotine, sword fighting, mobs rioting in the French Revolution, a mummy and battle scenes from ancient Greece. There’s also a moment where Sherman’s father is believed to be dead. The PG rating – distinguishing it from a G rating – is certainly warranted.
- The film has more than a few “butt and booger” jokes, but also a few gags with slight sexual overtones, including Sherman laughing about a “booby trap,” Mr. Peabody popping through a painting that depicts abundant cleavage, an exuberant wedding kiss and a line about “touching yourself,” which is clearly played for the double entendre.
- The movie has a handful of religious and occult references, including the brief appearance of Gandhi and Moses and an extensive foray into ancient Egypt, where the Egyptian priest talks of his “gods” and “holy texts.” Hieroglyphics, blood ceremonies and Egyptian understandings of the afterlife all play a significant role in the sequence, but they are depicted more as cultural elements than supernatural.