It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
I'm not convinced that the world really needed a big budget, 3-D, feature-length reboot of the adventures of Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, but here it is. It's better than OK, and a few elements sing; but overall it frustrates. Its delights come from its willingness to depart from formula, but formula still rules it.
The picture is based on the classic Jay Ward shorts that used to appear on Rocky and Bullwinkle's animated variety show, back during TV's late jurassic period. The film's director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King") and his screenwriter Craig Wright ("Lost") don't knock themselves out trying to replicate every nuance. They've kept the central relationship between a genius dog (Ty Burrell) and his adopted human son (Max Charles), plus the time machine they travel in, and a few of Mr. Peabody's brazenly horrible puns (at one point the pooch tells his boy that Egypt's pyramids were designed by "some old Giza"). Everything else, though, has been ginned up, seemingly to bring "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" in line with American studio animation's unofficial house style. I'm referring to a familiar set of qualities developed during the Disney renaissance of the late '80s and early '90s, and perfected, if that is the word, by the "Shrek" series, and movies in a "Shrek"-like vein.
On Ward's series, the draughtsmanship was simple, and the characters were so barely-animated that they seemed to slide across the screen, like figures in a pop-up book. This movie, in contrast, goes for the glitzy, the state-of-the-art. The designs are highly stylized, but with incongruous elements. The realistic shadings and blockbuster action-film-style (virtual) camerawork seem at odds with the movie's Eisenhower-Kennedy era cars, clothes, hairstyles and architecture; ditto the characters with their Ward-style bobble-heads and sticklike bodies and arms. When Danny Elfman's sprightly-bombastic score swells and Mr. Peabody and Sherman zoom through snaky time-space wormholes a la "Star Trek" or "Contact," or race out of a collapsing tomb, or body surf through a network of sewer tunnels just ahead of raging flood waters or flame-clouds, it's as if rather slight source material had been injected with a hyper-dose of steroids that made it balloon grotesquely, creating bulges where bulges shouldn't be.
The humor seems off as well. The original show had a distinctively goofy and wry sensibility. It mixed historical factoids and Borscht Belt tomfoolery, with Mr. Peabody educating his boy Sherman on the culture and history of whatever society they happened to be disrupting, then getting them out of jams via Sherlock Holmes-style displays of icy super-competence. There's a fair bit of that in here, and it's marvelous. Peabody's math-driven approach to travel and escape is visualized with onscreen graphics, arrows and equations, and the name of Mr. Peabody's fancy mixed drink "Einstein on the Beach" is funny on at least two levels. It's hard to imagine how Ty Burrell's vocal performance as Peabody could be improved. Everything about it is exquisitely judged, from the way he sprints through Peabody's scientific exposition, but never so quickly that he confuses the viewer, to the way he unveils the dog's wretched puns (in Peabody's mind, he's underplaying the jokes, but to anyone listening, he's hammering them).