Mainstream animation fans have been riding such a high these past few months that they can probably completely overlook the likes of Free Birds and The Nut Job, which are merely disturbing proof that any upstart studio can crank out chintzy-looking computer animation and get recognizable stars to provide the voices. While these movies have been doing well enough, they’ve been overwhelmed by the roars of approval for Disney Animation’s Frozen—which has become Disney’s biggest non-Pixar hit in years (and in actual dollars, their flat-out biggest cartoon hit ever) and won the company their first non-Pixar Oscar for feature animation—and the even less likely mega-success of The Lego Movie, from often animation-challenged Warner Brothers and, more important, Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
This weekend brings the first major challenger as those two movies finally recede from theaters: Mr. Peabody and Sherman, an adaptation of the Rocky and Bullwinkle segment about a time-traveling dog-genius and his “pet boy.” The possibility of a Peabody and Sherman movie has been tossed around for a while, and some credit is due to DreamWorks for making, amazingly, the first fully animated film derived from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Several have been ill-advised forays into live action, and the movie about Rocky and Bullwinkle themselves mixed animation with live action, Roger Rabbit-style. Peabody, though, creates CG-animated versions of the characters that stay true to their original flat-n’-crude designs.
The movie also opens with a recreation of a TV-style Peabody and Sherman segment. Actually, it opens—as so many DreamWorks cartoons do—with some pointless narration from Peabody, explaining who he is and what the deal is with this movie. As it happens, the first-ever Peabody cartoon opened the same way, but the prologue still feels imposed on the feature version because even the better DreamWorks cartoons seem unable to proceed without a narrated intro, and this movie in particular would do better to drive right into the time travel. When it does, the filmmakers craft faithfully pun-heavy (if somewhat more antic) trips to Ancient Greece, the Italian Renaissance, and so on, with a zippy pace and some decent gags. Some of the original drollness has been replaced with some dopey body humor, but if the movie had proceeded as a connected anthology of Peabody and Sherman toying with time, it might have been a reasonable diversion.
But per the blueprint calling strictly for all-ages fun and heartstring-yanking, Mr. Peabody and Sherman also needs, apparently, an emotional core, and the movie makes so many attempts to find it that they get muddled together into nonsense. At various points, it tries to be about Sherman overcoming his embarrassment over his adopted parentage; Peabody proving his worth as a parent in the face of a skeptical Child Protective Services; Peabody the fastidious parent learning to let go (already covered not just in last year’s superior DreamWorks cartoon The Croods, but in roughly half of the even-more superior Pixar features); Sherman overcoming his brainy timidness; Peabody learning not to let his genius overshadow his son’s achievements; or Sherman assimilating into normal human school (for reasons unexplained, he’s having what sounds like his first-ever day of school at age seven). Sherman also gets a bullying female classmate who turns into a sort of love interest, and if watching Peabody and Sherman reduced to a cute father-son team is a little treacly, it’s nothing compared to watching cartoon seven-year-olds fall in love. Are girls and boys not allowed to be just friends, even in animated form?
The emotional angle that kind of, sort of works is the CPS conflict; when the CPS baddie fumes over Peabody’s right to adopt Sherman into a nontraditional family, critics’ pens scribbled intently all around me—responding, I’m assuming, to the coded message that love, not superficially “traditional” values, makes a family (a sweet sentiment that might be a little misguided given how often lunatics equate homosexuality with bestiality). But even this serves more to weigh down the movie’s comic spirit than to embolden it; I perked up when the climax called for time-travel duplicates and rips in the space-time continuum, then slunk back again when I realized they would only be employed for the lowest-grade farce. (Even more than chase-happy Pixar, DreamWorks movies require lots of ZOOOOOMing and WHOOOSHing, the better to justify their 3D upgrades.)