The review is about another movie still in theatres, so I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible.
The idea of a heart-warming story about a boy and his dog is practically cliché. From Rin Tin Tin to Lassie to Boxey and Muffet on the original Battlestar Galactica, people have sat and watched stories where boy and dog save the day. However, only Ted Key flipped the relationship around.
Peabody’s Improbable History started in 1959 as a series of short cartoons as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show*. In each cartoon, Mr. Peabody, a brilliant dog capable of building a time machine, took his pet boy Sherman to a historical event using the WABAC Machine. The event would never be going as the history books said, though. There was always some problem that needed correcting, and Mr. Peabody was just the dog to help. Each short would end after the problem was solved and after Mr. Peabody quipped a pun related to what happened.
In 2002, Rob Minkoff decided to bring back Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman. After twelve years of development, caused in part by a similiarity to the first Despicable Me movie, Mr. Peabody and Sherman was released. The movie took the core concept of the original shorts, the trips taken by the main characters in the WABAC Machine, and expanded it, adding details to not just the world around Mr. Peabody and Sherman but the relations between the two. The movie starts with a nod to the original Peabody’s Improbable History with a trip to pre-Reign of Terror** France to visit Marie Antoinette. After a misunderstanding that escalates to revolution, Mr. Peabody extricates both Sherman and himself to return home after quipping a pun. All in all, a bang up job where nobody lost their head.
The movie continues, showing Sherman’s first day at school and dealing with one of the more dreaded beings ever to set foot on Earth, a girl named Penny. Things don’t go well, leading to Sherman biting Penny, setting off a chain of events that brings in Mrs. Grunion, a Dolores Umbridge-style antagonist. Grunion wants to separate dog and boy. In an effort to work things out with Penny’s family, Mr. Peabody invites them over for dinner to discuss the events. While Peabody charms Paul and Patty Peterson, Sherman gets to show Penny around, with strict orders to not show her the WABAC Machine. Naturally, Sherman shows Penny the WABAC Machine, starting the romp through history, meeting luminaries such as Tutankhamen, Agamemnon, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Between 1959 and 2014, a lot has changed in the world of animation. Computers, which were room-sized, tape-driven monstrosities with minimal graphics capability in 1959, are integral to animation today. Audiences expect more in the relationships between characters. Smoking is forbidden; the pipe-smoking Mr. Peabody of 1959 just wouldn’t be shown. Casual cruelty, especially towards children, is also frowned upon. The acceptable quality of animation has also changed; for a feature film, backgrounds can no longer be sketched in or repeated on a loop.
The other huge jump from Peabody’s Improbable History to Mr. Peabody and Sherman is running time. Peabody’s Improbable History was part of a 22 minute episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, so it never took more than four to five minutes. Mr. Peabody and Sherman runs 92 minutes; the movie just can’t rely on the old formula to work.
The scriptwriters were up for the task. They took the core of Peabody’s Improbable History and used it as the foundation for the movie. It didn’t matter if part of the audience was too young to have ever seen the shorts; the movie starts off with an extended version that would fit well in the original’s run. The movie then expands, discovering and developing the relationship between dog and boy, and between Mr. Peabody and Sherman with the rest of the world around them, all without sacrificing the humour Peabody’s Improbable History was known for. Sure, there may be a fart joke or two, but anyone who knows of history, of drama, and even of psychology will get the humour. You have to admire a movie that works in a subtle Oedipus complex gag into a scene inside the Trojan Horse.
Does Mr. Peabody and Sherman work as an adaptation? Yes. The script built on top of the original cartoon and expanded without sacrificing what made Peabody’s Improbable History memorable.
Next week, The Mechanic.
* Also known as Rocky and His Friends among others, depending on the syndicator.
** Five minutes before to the Reign of Terror.
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