Monday, December 15, 2014

Time Travelers

I have never watched the TV show Modern Family; thus, I had no idea who Ty Burrell is; thus, I did not detect any gay adoption metaphor in the Dreamworks movie Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  Neither had I ever seen, unless in passing, the characters from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show; thus I evaluated the movie on its own terms rather than in comparison to the old serial.

Result:  I really, really liked this movie.  The characters are funny and likeable, the story is heartwarming with a minimum of preachiness, and the action scenes and animation are solid.

Ironically, it was my mother who suggested the gay angle; I had rather interpreted Mr. Peabody’s struggles with the menacing and intrusive social worker as those of a father.  If a metaphor for gay parenting was intended, it would be somewhat ironic in that I would be surprised to see any bureaucratic hostility to gay anything in 2014.

A legion of critics reacted negatively to the character of Penny Peterson, Sherman’s classmate who initially bullies and provokes him.  They claim this makes the movie “anti-woman”; I believe it was courageous of the filmmakers to show that, yes, girls in elementary school can bully too, and won’t hesitate to avail themselves of white knights if it doesn’t work out for them.  But Penny character arc is perhaps too complex for a children’s animation.  She eventually comes to admire and defend Sherman, but while the audience can see this developing, we aren’t really given to understand Penny’s internal motivation.

Take for instance the sequence where the children steal a ride in Leonardo da Vinci’s glider.  [SPOILER ALERT:  Mr. Peabody has a time machine.  Oh wait, you already knew that from the series?  Never mind, then.]  Penny is the instigator, launching the glider and initially flying it.  But then, in a steep dive, she insists that Sherman take the controls and “save us”.  Which he does, much to his own and the audience’s satisfaction.

Penny’s action, encouraging Sherman to overcome his fears and creating a space where he can then assume a masculine, heroic role is a very mature and in some sense deeply socially conservative thing for her to do.  But . . . why would she care about Sherman’s character development one way or the other?  The realistic answer – because she has grown to love him and wants him to be the best he can be – isn’t especially supported by what we’ve seen up to then.  And indeed, it may be too deep a theme for a children’s cartoon.

The bulk of the movie focuses on the  relationship between Mr. Peabody and his adopted son.  But in contrast to many cartoons, this is a two-way street.  Peabody is required to reconcile himself to the prospect that Sherman will eventually grow up; Sherman, for his part, learns to appreciate that behind Peabody’s fussiness is deep fatherly concern for his wellbeing.

The critics whine on about how all this is formulaic.  Fair enough.  But it’s a good formula, generally achieving commercial success (though apparently not in this case) for valid artistic reasons. 

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