Monday, March 31, 2014

No Worries with the WABAC

Lost amid the rise of fledgling animation studios, the second renaissance of Disney, and the steady sinking of Pixar's brand, is the fact that Dreamworks Animation... is ACTUALLY getting better.

Not that the company has necessarily been BAD, as they've often put out fun, smart, unique family films and franchises like Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Megamind and Rise of the Guardians (Yes, they've had true stinkers like Sharks Tale as well, but that's besides the point). But the studio constantly played second banana to Pixar for almost its entire existence, and now it seems to be losing ground to more and more competition as 3D animation becomes more synonymous with moviemaking in general, not just the animated titles. But just a few years ago, things began to change. 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was positively wonderful. And last year, The Croods was an absolute joy to behold. Yes, the company was still pumping out enjoyable franchise fare like Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, and Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (not to mention disappointing franchise bait Turbo), but little by little Dreamworks was definitely improving its brand, in what appears to be a strong desire to remain relevant in the coming years. And so we are introduced to the surprisingly good Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the first film released from Dreamworks' newly-acquired Classic Media collection.
Just a time-bending tale about a dog and his boy.
Based on Peabody's Improbable History, the series of animated shorts that ran alongside classic Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons, Dreamworks' latest creation continues the story of World's-Smartest-Dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) and his adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) as they travel through time, exploring history and discovering its oft-humorous and questionably-accurate underbelly. But Peabody's greatest challenge might be fatherhood, as his young protegee gets in trouble by fighting another student, the precocious Penny (Ariel Winter). An attempt to soothe relations with Penny's parents inadvertently begins a chain of events that threaten to break the time space continuum and end the world as we know it.
Aren't you a little young for a toga party?
Even if I couldn't compare Mr. Peabody and Sherman to its low-fi progenitor, I'd still be impressed by how much fun it is. Director Rob Minkoff (best known for co-directing The Lion King) takes the (relatively) simple idea of time travel and makes the absolute most of it, creating five distinct worlds and making them fundamentally different from one another, while bridging them with a cocksure mix of historical parody and truly outrageous puns. This was absolutely necessary in the original, and modernizing it strips none of the charm or humor of which the fans had come to expect. It's incredibly easy for both kids and adults to enjoy, which really isn't seen too often in Dreamworks pictures. That alone is enough to state that this movie is something entirely different to behold.
They really believed they could fly...
Even the additions by Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright (a TV writer for Dirty Sexy Money and Six Feet Under) don't feel forced, though the film suffers from a first act that is HARDLY impressive. We're asked to swallow a lot in that first half hour of plot setup and character introduction, from the idea that a genius invented Planking and Autotune (Peabody probably should have been brought up on war crimes for that), to Sherman going to school (I mean, Peabody seems like the home-schooling type), to especially the introduction of Penny, a character so obviously created to appeal to young female audience members it's almost painful to accept her inclusion. Penny starts off as the typical spoiled-bratty-mean-girl cliche, and from moment one it's easy to see yourself hating this character for the entire 92 minutes. But as the movie regains its footing, Penny's character also sees dramatic changes, and becomes far more likable and empathetic as a result.
She just saw how she was represented in the beginning...
And when the story truly maintains focus where it SHOULD - the relationship between Peabody and Sherman - the result is a huge jump-start to the film as a whole. The original shorts never really had much of a back-story between the two characters, but here the focus is mostly on Peabody's challenges in raising a growing human boy, and the prejudices of those who feel he's unfit to parent due to him being canine and not human. Here, he's shown as being more fatherly and caring than at any time in the 1950-60's, even going so far as to create the WABAC time machine as an educational tool for his son. That father-son relationship (and the ups and downs that go with it) are the driving force behind the film's narrative, and while I think it's interesting that Dreamworks has focused on this dynamic in their better movies (Dragon and Croods both had daddy issues to resolve), it's an idea that really seems to bring out their best efforts. Here it doesn't quite have the same emotional "oomph" but succeeds as a modern take on those same themes. And again, it doesn't feel shoehorned-in, as the writing handily weaves it in with what was already established about the characters.
Is he pledging his allegiance to a Vespa?
And it's this identifiable and perfectly-included theme that makes Mr. Peabody and Sherman one of the more unlikely (and satisfying) hits of 2014. Is it on the same level as Dragon or The Croods? Well, sadly no; that first act is a bit of a downer, and the filmmakers don't quite have the bravery to follow through with some of their more daring material. That's not necessarily a bad thing, just a tad disappointing when you wonder what they COULD have done. It plays a tad safe, but with a great story, excellent voice acting (seriously, Dennis Haysbert's baritone ought to be contractually obligated to appear in at least ONE scene of EVERY animated flick), and quirky animation reminiscent of its ancestors but also given a modern-day sheen, it's still one of Dreamworks' better family films. Maybe it's not quite on par with the pantheon of excellence the company has achieved, but this excellent second-tier title is another example of how a perennially second-place studio has upped its game in recent years. Hopefully it will continue to do so in this wondrous age of animated film.

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