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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Although the Community fan base is rapidly thinning, many of us still watch weekly, holding onto the hope that the cast can crank out something enjoyable for one of these episodes. Although I checked my investment at the announcement of Dan Harmon’s departure, satisfied with the Season 3 finale as a spiritual conclusion of the show (it really did wrap up everything in a pretty excellent way), you can bet I’ll be tuning in for Jeff’s upcoming reunion with his father, a Greendale origin story, and a puppet episode that was announced at Tuesday night’s PaleyFest Community panel. If only out of morbid curiosity.
NBC describes the episode's premise in a press release: "In the episode, the study group takes a wild balloon ride that crash lands in the woods, and they end up spending a little time with a friendly mountain man, played by Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) ... As the study group recounts their adventures in the woods, which has left them all feeling a little awkward with one another, Dean Pelton (Jim Rash) encourages them to speak about their experience with the use of puppets. The puppets include characters Jeff (Joel McHale), Pierce (Chevy Chase), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown), Abed (Danny Pudi), Annie (Alison Brie), Troy (Donald Glover) and Chang (Ken Jeong)." So ... we'll see.
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Just a season ago, a theme episode of this nature would inspire a different attitude entirely. The series has managed several high concepts, tackling film genres and a number of different types of animation, as some of its greatest triumphs to date — not because of the style, but the substance. Community's winners have used big and small screen tropes and highly specific lenses to tell personal and meaty stories, delving into the characters' relationships and fragmented psyches, while the lesser examples of the breed amount to little more than short form parodies.
And while Season 4 in particular remains the target of our gripes, it's not as though Community has had a perfect record with its high concept episodes in the past...
"Contemporary American Poultry" (Season 1, Episode 21)Why It Worked: The first of the lot introduced Community's ability to bend reality just enough, using Mafia movie schematics to tell the story of Abed's feelings of isolation among the study group and people in general...
"Modern Warfare" (Season 1, Episode 22)Why It Worked: ...but the real game changer came a week later, launching Community into a new plane of existence entirely for its memorable action movie sendup, which creator Harmon describes as colossally dependent on the effectiveness of its emotional core: the culmination of Jeff and Britta's romantic tension.
RELATED: 'Community' Recap: Can Troy and Abed's Love Survive?
"Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" (Season 2, Episode 11)Why It Worked: The real victory of the claymation Christmas episode was in its explanation of why it was a claymation Christmas episode — the heartbreaking and frightening manifestation of Abed's emotional decay over his estranged mother's abandonment of him around their formerly cherished holiday. Abed dealt with the tragedy by imagining everything as one of the Rankin/Bass specials the two used to watch together, dipping the bright and fun imagery in a vat of heavy, dark sorrow. Happy ending, though!
"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons" (Season 2, Episode 14)Why It Worked: The Lord of the Rings-ian style fit the theme of the episode while not submitting too much to the mechanics of the epic movie. And beneath an epic episode there lurked epically emotional stories: Fat Neil's struggles with suicidal desires, Pierce's vicious insecurities and fear of exclusion, and Jeff's paining guilt over having inadvertently unleashed this degree of insensitivity on an innocent classmate. All delivered via a medium capable of capturing the grand nature of these conflicts.
The Documentary Episodes: "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking" (Season 2, Episode 16) and "Documentary Filmmaking Redux" (Season 3, Episode 8) Why They Worked: The show had so much to say about the documentary format that it warranted two independent episodes. The first channeled and poked fun at the luxuries of the mockumentary style in the up-close-and-personal examination of each character's emotional turmoils during a trip to visit Pierce in the hospital. The second, even more interesting episode both gave the Dean his first glimmer of spotlight, diving energetically into his frazzled, frayed psyche, while also tackling the age-old question of whether a documentarian can and should truly be detached from his or her work.
RELATED: 'Community' Recap: You Are Now Watching Abed TV
"Basic Rocket Science" (Season 2, Episode 4)Why It Didn't Work: Serving as little more than an Apollo 13 parody, the Season 2 episode grabbed at the goofy nature of space mission movies, using the flimsy, unbelievable throughline of Annie threatening to transfer out of Greendale (on a whim, so it seemed) as its seed.
"Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism" (Season 3, Episode 9)Why It Didn't Work: While this episode's emotional engagement in Jeff and Shirley's previously unknown childhood rivalry was gripping and sweet, there were a few missed marks throughout. In regards to Jeff/Shirley, the arbitrary shift to anime style during their cathartic foosball faceoff didn't pull us in as much as it did cock a few eyebrows. It was a nice idea, but didn't contribute anything to the episode. On the other side of the group, the Abed/Annie/Troy storyline, a tackle of the age-old sitcom trope of covering up a misdeed, didn't so much play with or deconstruct the notion as much as it did simply enact it.
"Regional Holiday Music" (Season 3, Episode 10)Why It Didn't Work: In the same vein as "Nocturnal Vigilantism," this Glee parody hardly seemed like an intelligent spin on the much detested "rival" series. Instead, Community just took the Christmas episode as an opportunity to sing vaguely clever songs and take cheap shots at the Fox hit.
RELATED: 'Community' Guest Star Tricia Helfer on Her Jeff Reunion
"Digital Estate Planning" (Season 3, Episode 20)Why It Didn't Work: I might be in the minority here, but I never much cared for the video game episode. Not because of its substance — Pierce's redemption and the discovery of a half-brother whom he'd come to care for are worthy fodder. But in this case, the style. The writers didn't seem to have enough fun with the idea of a video game episode, padding the script with exposition and bland chatter where there should have been more frequent takedowns of the video game generation via Troy.
"History 101" (Season 4, Episode 1)Why It Didn't Work: Only a portion of the Season 4 premiere was stylized, and in keeping with our expectations of a post-Harmon Greendale, was so in the most obvious way possible: a four-camera sitcom parody. What lurked beneath the surface was Abed's phobia of change, but the delivery seemed heavy-handed and hammy, whereas past exhibitions ("Uncontrollable Christmas" is the most pertinent comparison) were subtle and poignant.
"Paranormal Parentage" (Season 4, Episode 2)Why It Didn't Work: Another lackluster non-deconstruction. In this haunted house episode, spoofing the tropes of Scooby Doo and its leviathan of spinoffs, the gang didn't seem to have anything to say about mystery stories. They just took one on. And with a severe deficit of jokes, no less.
RELATED: 'Community' Season 4 Premiere Is One Big Inside Joke, But It's Not the Same
ON THE FENCE
"Pillows and Blankets" (Season 3, Episode 14)Why We Can't Decide: While the emotional core was vivid and strong, a good deal of the episode seemed to submit to the functionality of a Ken Burns doc, feeling like just another grab at the ol' parody grail. To its credit, a few odd deconstructions do subsist throughout — the text message gags are especially memorable.
"Basic Lupine Urology" (Season 3, Episode 17)Why We Can't Decide: It was funny, very much so, but kind of lacking in anything new to say about Law & Order.
To those who consider this list incomplete, thinking the clip show episodes ("Paradigms of Human Memory" and "Curriculum Unavailable"), the zombie episode ("Epidemiology"), and the bottle episode ("Cooperative Calligraphy") among those deserving of a place in this context, we invite you to sound off in the comment section.
How do you think the upcoming puppet episode will fare?
Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
[Photo Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC]
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A kids’ movie without the cheeky jokes for adults is like a big juicy BLT without the B… or the T. Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted may have a title that sounds like it was made up in a cartoon sequel laboratory but when it comes to serving up laughs just think of the film as a BLT with enough extra bacon to satisfy even the wildest of animals — or even a parent with a gaggle of tots in tow. Yes even with that whole "Afro Circus" nonsense.
It’s not often that we find exhaustively franchised films like the Madagascar set that still work after almost seven years. Despite being spun off into TV shows and Christmas specials in addition to its big screen adventures the series has not only maintained its momentum it has maintained the part we were pleasantly surprised by the first time around: great jokes.
In this third installment of the series – the trilogy-maker if you will – directing duo Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath add Conrad Vernon (director Monsters Vs. Aliens) to the helm as our trusty gang swings back into action. Alex the lion (Ben Stiller) Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) Gloria the hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Melman the giraffe (David Schwimmer) are stuck in Africa after the hullaballoo of Madagascar 2 and they’ll do anything to get back to their beloved New York. Just a hop skip and a jump away in Monte Carlo the penguins are doing their usual greedy schtick but the zoo animals catch up with them just in time to catch the eye of the sinister animal control stickler Captain Dubois (Frances McDormand). And just like that the practically super human captain is chasing them through Monte Carlo and the rest of Europe in hopes of planting Alex’s perfectly coifed lion head on her wall of prized animals.
Luckily for pint-sized viewers Dubois’ terrifying presence is balanced out by her sheer inhuman strength uncanny guiles and Stretch Armstrong flexibility (ah the wonder of cartoons) as well as Alex’s escape plan: the New Yorkers run away with the European circus. While Dubois’ terrifying Doberman-like presence looms over the entire film a sense of levity (which is a word the kiddies might learn from Stiller’s eloquent lion) comes from the plan for salvation in which the circus animals and the zoo animals band together to revamp the circus and catch the eye of a big-time American agent. Sure the pacing throughout the first act is practically nonexistent running like a stampede through the jungle but by the time we're palling around under the big top the film finds its footing.
The visual splendor of the film (and man is there a champion size serving of it) the magnificent danger and suspense is enhanced to great effect by the addition of 3D technology – and not once is there a gratuitous beverage or desperate Crocodile Dundee knife waved in our faces to prove its worth. The caveat is that the soundtrack employs a certain infectious Katy Perry ditty at the height of the 3D spectacular so parents get ready to hear that on repeat until the leaves turn yellow.
But visual delights and adventurous zoo animals aside Madagascar 3’s real strength is in its script. With the addition of Noah Baumbach (Greenberg The Squid and the Whale) to the screenwriting team the script is infused with a heightened level of almost sarcastic gravitas – a welcome addition to the characteristically adult-friendly reference-heavy humor of the other Madagascar films. To bring the script to life Paramount enlisted three more than able actors: Vitaly the Siberian tiger (Bryan Cranston) Gia the Leopard (Jessica Chastain) and Stefano the Italian Sealion (Martin Short). With all three actors draped in European accents it might take viewers a minute to realize that the cantankerous tiger is one and the same as the man who plays an Albuquerque drug lord on Breaking Bad but that makes it that much sweeter to hear him utter slant-curse words like “Bolshevik” with his usual gusto.
Between the laughs the terror of McDormand’s Captain Dubois and the breathtaking virtual European tour the Zoosters’ accidental vacation is one worth taking. Madagascar 3 is by no means an insta-classic but it’s a perfectly suited for your Summer-at-the-movies oasis.