For the bulk of every Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, moose and squirrel would engage in high concept escapades that satirized geopolitics, contemporary cinema, and the very fabrics of the human condition. With all of that to work with, there's no excuse for why the pair and their Soviet nemeses haven't gotten a decent movie adaptation. But the ingenious Mr. Peabody and his faithful boy Sherman are another story, intercut between Rocky and Bullwinkle segments to teach kids brief history lessons and toss in a nearly lethal dose of puns. Their stories and relationship were much simpler, which means that bringing their shtick to the big screen would entail a lot more invention — always risky when you're dealing with precious material.
For the most part, Mr. Peabody & Sherman handles the regeneration of its heroes aptly, allowing for emotionally substance in their unique father-son relationship and all the difficulties inherent therein. The story is no subtle metaphor for the difficulties surrounding gay adoption, with society decreeing that a dog, no matter how hyper-intelligent, cannot be a suitable father. The central plot has Peabody hosting a party for a disapproving child services agent and the parents of a young girl with whom 7-year-old Sherman had a schoolyard spat, all in order to prove himself a suitable dad. Of course, the WABAC comes into play when the tots take it for a spin, forcing Peabody to rush to their rescue.
Getting down to personals, we also see the left brain-heavy Peabody struggle with being father Sherman deserves. The bulk of the emotional marks are hit as we learn just how much Peabody cares for Sherman, and just how hard it has been to accept that his only family is growing up and changing.
But more successful than the new is the film's handling of the old — the material that Peabody and Sherman purists will adore. They travel back in time via the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance, and the Trojan War, and 18th Century France, explaining the cultural backdrop and historical significance of the settings and characters they happen upon, all with that irreverent (but no longer racist) flare that the old cartoons enjoyed. And oh... the puns.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a f**king treasure trove of some of the most amazingly bad puns in recent cinema. This effort alone will leave you in awe.
The film does unravel in its final act, bringing the science-fiction of time travel a little too close to the forefront and dropping the ball on a good deal of its emotional groundwork. What seemed to be substantial building blocks do not pay off in the way we might, as scholars of animated family cinema, have anticipated, leaving the movie with an unfinished feeling.
But all in all, it's a bright, compassionate, reasonably educational, and occasionally funny if not altogether worthy tribute to an old favorite. And since we don't have our own WABAC machine to return to a time of regularly scheduled Peabody and Sherman cartoons, this will do okay for now.
If nothing else, it's worth your time for the puns.
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In the first story a shorter piece titled Fiction collegians Vi and Marcus are creative-writing students having an affair. In class Marcus reads the story that reveals the affair and the joy it brings him but his black professor Mr. Scott minces no words in criticizing Marcus' work. Later at a bar Mr. Scott picks up Vi takes her home and makes crude love to her. In class Vi reads aloud her short story about her encounter with Scott who again has no praise except to note that at least it has a beginning middle and end. In Storytelling's second story Non-Fiction loser Toby Oxman longs to be a documentary filmmaker. After he meets unmotivated inarticulate high schooler Scooby Livingston Toby convinces Scooby's family to let him make a documentary about them. Father Marty Livingston is at odds with Scooby but gets him into Princeton by making a fat contribution to the University's alumni fund; middle brother Brady suffers a serious accident in a football game and youngest brother Mikey hypnotizes his father and gets him to fire maid Consuelo because she is lazy which results in her exacting a terrible revenge.
Challenged in both episodes to play characters with limited appeal none of the actors deliver stand-out performances. Nor to their credit do they embarrass. In the very brief Fiction we're given too little of Selma Blair as writing student Vi Leo Fitzpatrick as handicapped beau Marcus and Robert Wisdom as their brutalizing professor who all phone in routine performances. In Non-Fiction Paul Giamatti convinces as consummate loser documentarian wannabe Toby and Mark Webber has little to do as aimless black sheep son Scooby. John Goodman and Julie Hagerty intermittently amuse as clueless suburban parents but Lupe Ontiveros as maid Consuelo gets no opportunity to show that beyond her hapless fate and grief she is capable of a horrendous act.
There is no question that writer/director Todd Solondz who delivered the indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse and the infamous and offensive-to-many Happiness is obsessed with certain themes--the emptiness of suburban life the vulnerability of young people and the pervasiveness of sexual hypocrisies. Returning to these themes Solondz resorts to shock tactics to jolt the otherwise dull and deadpan goings-on into something compelling for audiences as if deliberately matching a tedious milieu with a similarly uninspired style. Care was given to contrast Toby's documentary footage with actual scenes of the family in motion but subtle technical devices are no substitute for the compelling characters that are lacking here. More than Solondz's previous films Storytelling is a less accessible effort that will be an acquired taste for the curious. With characteristic drollness Solondz bravely embraces provocative themes but he too rarely hits the mark with any wit insight or humanity. Instead resorting to cheesy shock value and surprise tactics Solondz serves up an abundance of profanity and some unsettling sex scenes: in the first episode a large red rectangle obscures the brutal encounter between student Vi and her professor Mr. Scott and in the second story an abrupt cutaway truncates a seemingly gratuitous scene in which high schooler Scooby gives in to oral sex with a male classmate.