Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

A Dog and His Boy (The Way, WABAC)
"You've Never Heard of....?"

Way, way back in the day (during the 1960's) in the first round of cheaply made cartoons for television (post-"Clutch Cargo"), there were some that replaced the low production values of their animation with some smart story-telling with subject matter and jokes that would fly over the noggins of their young viewers and connect with adults.  The best of those (and the longest running) were out of the production house of Jay Ward, who was making episodic shorts for packaging under the umbrella of "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show."  The animation was done in Mexico, but the stories were pure U.S., with an emphasis on puns, satire, and pop culture...but not so "inside" as to keep it from being "evergreen" (as a result, the episodes are still in syndication, and can be viewed and appreciated without titles explaining the context, or a commentary placing it in historical perspective).

But, still, sometimes "getting" the humor takes a little learning and a little growing up. For example, there was an episode of "Rocky" where humans were being "scrooched" by moon-men Gidney and Cloyd ("Shall I 'scrooch' him, Cloyd?" "Go ahead, Gidney"), a process that would make them less intelligent to the point of idiocy (the gun never worked on Bullwinkle because..well, what would be the point?).  And I remember Rocky got "scrooched" and the first thing out of his mouth was "Tell me 'bout the rabbits, George!" which is a literary reference that no kid is ever going to "get."  The villains were a pair of Russian spies, Boris (last name "Badenov," as opposed to "Goudenov") and Natasha, when tensions between the U.S. and Russia were at their peak at the height of the Cold War. The writers were Bill Scott, Chris Hayward and Allan Burns, who were well-read and not afraid to: 1) show it, or 2) expect the audience to "rise up" to the material. Writers are constantly told to "write to your audience"—but, thank God, some choose to ignore it, and write above them (because, ya know, said audience might "learn" something once in awhile—the opposite of "scrooching").
Peabody and Sherman being "disarming" in a Mummy's tomb.
One of those "Bullwinkle" vignettes was "Peabody's Improbably History" featuring a "wicked-smaht" dog named Mr. Peabody and "his boy" Sherman. Believing in "home-schooling" (before it was fashionable with anyone but the Amish), Peabody invented a time machine, called the WABAC (pronounced "Way-back") Machine, that would send them back in time to learn about some significant historical epoch, which was, in most episodes, not going the way History said it had. Peabody would inevitably set it right and end the segment with notoriously bad puns.
There have been live action versions of many of Ward's properties—The Adventures of Rocky and BullwinkleGeorge of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right, Boris and Natasha: The Movie—but this is the first feature with Peabody and Sherman, entitled, simply enough, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.  

One worries, going in, whether it can sustain the wit of those five minute shorts stretched out to ninety animated minutes, and, at the beginning, it does, with a brief spin to The French Revolution, quite literally, as it features a bit too much 3-D zooming and careening like a water-slide for these old eyes...and (I was cheered) it ends with an atrocious pun. Then, the whole thing gets bogged down with Sherman getting in trouble at school after he is bullied about his abnormal step-parentage. This leads to an investigation by CPS and the usual complications occurring in the space-time continuum when you try and expand five minutes to ninety. A lengthy "origin story" montage accompanied by a particularly poignant John Lennon song (no, it's not "Imagine" or "Hey Bulldog") doesn't help matters much, nor does a somewhat off-kilter vocal performance by Steven Colbert as one of the bullies' parents (Peabody is voiced by "Modern Family's" Ty Burrell; Sherman, by Max Charles, both of them pitch-perfect).
Things start to pick up when it is Sherman who must try and set things right by going back in time with the approximately where the movie started to go off the rails. At that point, things start flying fast and loose, some of the potential of an errant time-machine and a space-time rip pays off and there are some wonderfully manic comic moments that come out of left field...that kids will never understand.
...Like this one that even I admit is "inside"
For that, a grudging smile of appreciation, even though the lesson of Mr. Peabody and Sherman would appear to be "One simply can't go back and recapture the past."
"This Movie is Actually Better than it is..."

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