Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

One of the many things I hate about family movies is the way that adults talk about them. To hear some grownups tell it, all a kids movie needs to appeal to them, or at least get them through it while their easily entertained brood merely squeals, is a smattering of jokes that only adults will understand. As if a heartwarming story about two ogres overcoming prejudice is somehow better if there are “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “American Idol” references.

But ignore for a moment the strange notion that kids movies are actually superior if there’s another, lamer, superficial adult comedy hidden beneath the surface. What happens when these kids grow up and find out that all those jokes they didn’t get were just tedious pop culture references that went out of fashion years before they hit puberty? Who’s going to love you then, Shrek 2?

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Greece

Enter Mr. Peabody & Sherman, a movie where all the jokes that kids won’t understand are actually clever references to world history and cultural icons whose influence lasted centuries, not TV seasons. References to Egyptian mythology, the dysfunctional family of Oedipus and the Reign of Terror make for surprisingly breezy humor in Mr. Peabody & Mr. Sherman. One wonders if those aforementioned adults will express that same pang of gratitude towards these little jokes, or whether they’ll even get half of them. Because make no mistake, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a film for nerds, by nerds.

We need more films for nerds, by the way. The dumbification of audiences is staggering, particularly in entertainment for the young, and a movie that banks on either the decent education of its audience or at least the idea that that audience will want to look these things up online (or hey, even in a book) feels like a bracing loofah against  the calluses we’ve built up against the likes of Free Birds, Turbo, The Nut Job, Ice Age 3: Continental Drift, blah-blah-blah you get the idea. I’m jaded.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Movie

Which is not to say that Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a film just for intellectuals. It’s got a beating heart. Director Rob Minkoff’s best film since The Lion King is a surprisingly potent story of a father and son, tested by the usual motion picture foibles – the first day of school, bullies, crushes, overprotective parenting, an impending threat from child services – but mostly as a means of cementing that father and son’s strong bond of love, honor and a respect for each other’s intelligence.

Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the world’s smartest dog, having mastered multiple instruments, popularized trendy dances and invented everything from auto-tuning to The WABAC Machine, a time machine he uses to tutor his adopted human son Sherman (Max Charles) in the importance of history, art and philosophy. Sherman grew up influenced by Leonardo Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Mahatma Gandhi, in person, and the gentle fantasy of these formerly living legends inspiring future generations on a one-on-one basis, and not based on the usual apocrypha, is infectious.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Egypt

But Sherman’s first experience with a school bully, whose bullying is convincingly cruel (and doubtless relatable to many children, since it sure gave me some vivid flashbacks), leads child services to question whether Mr. Peabody has any right to raise a human child. Mr. Peabody tries to solve Sherman’s problems with this bully, Penny (Ariel Winter), by making them spend time together, but Sherman reveals the existence of the WABAC, Penny gets affianced to King Tut, and Mr. Peabody has to lead them on a journey through multiple historical eras to save their lives, repair his damaged relationship with Sherman and eventually fix the broken timestream.

Minkoff’s film is lively and sharp, full of adventures with suspenseful danger that are solved through smart ideas and a thoughtful, sometimes sarcastic understanding of history. Here is a film that idolizes the free spirit of youth and the discipline of adulthood in equal measure, and thanks to a story with many twists and turns, it emerges as one of the most balanced kids movies on record.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman Leonardo Da Vinci

The appeal of this kind of playful storytelling, one with a brain and a soul, should be lost on no one. And even if it is lost on someone, it sure as hell shouldn’t be. Mr. Peabody & Sherman embraces education as an adventure, preaches the contemporary value of ancient history, and provides an honestly touching tribute to family by actually testing its heroes’ relationship instead of arbitrarily breaking it, and putting it back together again after the plot starts making demands. If Mr. Peabody & Sherman had come out when I was a kid it would have been one of my favorite movies, partly because I was a nerd, and partly because – if memory serves – I think I actually had pretty good taste in films.

If you have children, give them some credit. Take them to see Mr. Peabody & Sherman. If you don’t have children, more power to you, but you’ll still find a lot to like about this wonderful movie.

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William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.