Back in March, I reviewed Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the big screen animated remake of the old Peabody’s Improbable History shorts. The movie worked out well as an adaptation of the shorts, building on top of the formula set down by Peabody’s Improbable History of a trip in the WABAC to meet a historical personage and help them to do what history says they did, wrapping up with a pun. So, why a second look?
Part of preparing for Lost in Translation is finding the work to be reviewed. Most of the movies reviewed are found on DVD by wandering the aisles of the music and video store, looking for anything that stands out. A few weeks ago, I found the complete collection of Peabody’s Improbable History, standing out along with Mr. Peabody & Sherman on DVD. Ninety five-minute short cartoons, featuring fractured history and weaponized puns, well worth watching, leading me to agree with my earlier findings. The ninety-first short, or, properly, the first short is the reason for the second look.
That first short, entitled “Show Opening” in the collection, set up the entire premise of Peabody’s Improbable History. The short shows Mr. Peabody adopting Sherman and why he built the WABAC. The collection was my first time seeing it. I had been working on memories of reruns of The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show when it was on YTV. My viewing was hit and miss, so I got the gist of the show without getting full details. Having access to the first short and, indeed, the entire collection means reassessing the review.
Turns out, the movie was a better adaptation than original review said. Mr. Peabody & Sherman mined “Show Opening”, using it almost verbatim in the opening minutes. Mr. Peabody’s apartment in the movie is a larger budget version of his apartment in the shorts. The puns are as wonderful in the movie. Compare*.
From “Henry VIII”:
Catharine Parr, Henry’s fifth wife, is along the wall for her execution, facing a firing line aiming golf clubs. Sherman naturally asks about her and Mr. Peabody explains.
Sherman: “But the guards are aiming at her with golf clubs?”
Mr. Peabody: “How else would you shoot Parr?”
From Mr. Peabody & Sherman:
After escaping Robespierre at the start of the Reign of Terror, Mr. Peabody remarks on how the French Revolutuion could have been prevented.
Mr. Peabody: And think, Marie Antoinette could have avoided the whole revolution if she simply issued an edict to distribute bread to the poor. But then she couldn’t have her dessert.
Sherman: But why, Mr. Peabody.
Mr. Peabody: Because, Sherman, you can’t have your cake and edict, too.
It’s obvious that the writers watched the original series, all of it. They started at the original concept, of a dog adopting a boy and Mr. Peabody needing a way to channel Sherman’s energy, leading to the creation of the WABAC. The CG animation was used to tell the story about a dog and his boy instead of being the reason for the movie. There were a few updates; it’s been fifty-five years since “Show Opening” first aired and a lot more history has happened, but Mr. Peabody is still a genius. The effort was made to keep the core, and the movie leans heavily on the first short as its main source. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a far better adaptation than expected.
Next week, the November news round up.
* Neither of these comes close to the pun ending the “Mata Hari” short. The fourth wall was broken to warn viewers of the quality of the final pun.
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.