The Forging of Species

Since the biggest problem with Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a bully, and since I do not want to be accused of being one myself, I’m going to start this review out by saying something nice about the newest DreamWorks film:

What had appeared, in the marketing, to be a cheap and stilted-looking animated cash-in is actually, blown out to feature-length, visually limber, with an agile camera that explores the stylized corners of its Saturday Morning cartoon-inspired universe from the most intriguing angles, using the most daring camera acrobatics.

This is easier when your camera isn’t a real camera, of course, but credit where credit is due – packed with visual wit and cinematography that is unafraid to liven up any time-displaced scenario, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is impressive to behold as it shakes along with Mr. Peabody’s cocktail mixer, or as it fixes in one location as Peabody accepts his guest’s challenge to play an extraordinary variety of instruments both ordinary and obscure, the instruments appearing before the camera in a cloned one-dog band, and as it soars along with Sherman and his bully-turned-crush over Renaissance Italy.

Occasionally, the script matches the visuals punch-for-punch in the wit department. Its co-lead Mr. Sherman (voiced by Ty Burrell) is an inveterate punster (“You can’t have your cake and edict too!” he cracks about Marie Antoinette) who, as the world’s smartest dog, and perhaps the world’s most accomplished living creature (he has mastered, in addition to every instrument imaginable, the art of mixology, fencing, cooking, and, of course, time travel, and on and on) has had a detached view on reality ever since, as a puppy, he refused to play fetch because it would be an “exercise in futility.”

The boy who no longer wants to adopt Mr. Peabody, in response: “I don’t want this one, he’s sarcastic.”

That tyke is the first of many youngsters to not get Mr. Peabody’s erudite comedic stylings – “I don’t get it” is a frequent refrain from the kids who surround him – and it’s not hard to imagine a similar sentiment emanating out into the audience, where adults might find the film’s historically-informed jokes mildly amusing, but kids are unlikely to find anything beyond Mr. Peabody’s appearance (a puppy in glasses!) particularly riveting. Which means the rest of the film has to do everything it can to cater to its young audience whenever Mr. Peabody isn’t showing off for the grown-ups. (Which is why our heroes are shot, at one point, out of the Sphinx’s butt…)

This brings us to Sherman, a child who was abandoned as a baby and taken in by Mr. Peabody, likely still feeling the sting of his own adoption rejection, though the film never comes out and says it. So Mr. Peabody and Sherman are two unwanted misfits cast out by society who form their own unconventional bond (a wordless montage, even more stylized than the rest of the film, rather evocatively rewinds the clock and shows us their relationship from its beginnings). The wedge driven between them comes in the form of a society that holds Sherman at arm’s length for having been raised by a parent whom people do not understand. A cruel social worker is adamant that a dog cannot raise a boy (she just is, no reason is given, she is kind of a horrible villain) and a fellow student put out by Sherman’s knowledge of history bullies Sherman in the lunchroom, calling him a dog – an obedient, stupid animal.

Everything that is subpar about this film stems from the relationships described above. From Sherman’s end, we get most of the film’s clichéd, tired humor. (Though plenty of clichés find their way to the canine lead: in a fencing duel, he exposes a Frenchman’s underpants, and responds to an entreaty about whether something is clear with “Crystal,” which, come on?) Fluctuating frenetically from the basest humor to wildly whimsical and intelligent gags (a recurring gag involving Da Vinci’s creepy automaton baby pays off big every time), the film feels like it was written by Dexter and DeeDee of Dexter’s Laboratory, with each of them tackling half the script and refusing to collaborate on the other’s half. (“Nooo DEEDEE, you can not see my genius puns because you will RUIN them!”)

Make no mistake; while Burrell’s Sahari dry performance as Peabody elevates the film’s humor bona fides, he is by no means a great animated character: he is written as far to cocksure and divinely perfect to engender enough sympathy for that. But he is the Renaissance compared to his co-leads Dark Age; Sherman is fine on his own, a typical sitcom kid, curious and a little sassy, but, asked to fall head-over-heals for his oppressor, a monstrous kindergarten Angelica Pickles, he becomes a sort of grotesque in the hands of writers who take the “Kids bully each other because they secretly like each other” maxim to absurd, space-time continuum- destroying lengths. Peabody and Sherman get lost in time (and bring the past into the present) because Sherman tries to prove to his aggressor-cum-lady-love Penny that he is not, like his father, “a dog,”, something that is implied as, and that he takes as an insult. In softening the edges off Penny once she gets to know Sherman, the filmmakers attempt a character resurrection akin to the one Glee’s producers’ sorta-kinda pulled off with snark monster’s Santana and (especially) Kitty, and… it falls short. It’s not simply unsatisfying to see everyone in the cast take her initial insult of being a dog on as a positive credo which affirms loyalty and dedication – “I’m a dog!” – while Sherman gets a chaste elementary school kiss planted on him; it’s morally murky and has the potential to instill negative ideas about bullying.

Maybe I’d be kinder to this film’s affirmation of proud doghood if Mr. Peabody actually were, in any way, a dog. Aside from one heartened tail wag and the implication that he bites and could be put down, it is clear that Peabody is a genius first, adventurer second, dedicated father third, and anything resembling a dog somewhere around last. It would seem that the only reason Mr. Peabody is a dog, and the only reason his canine nature is incorporated into the story, is because in the animated series that inspired this film, Mr. Peabody is a dog. Which works fine for three minute chunks of historical absurdity and fits this feature-length production like a fur coat that shrank in the wash. (Didn’t know there was a Rocky and Bullwinkle segment featuring these characters? Congratulations, you are most of this film’s audience!) The filmmakers do not have anything truly artistically interesting to say about Mr. Peabody being a dog who is also a genius and father, trapped in a world of humans who do not understand him. Likewise, it is hard to imagine there was huge audience demand to see these characters brought to life by the animators at DreamWorks. (“Still no Mr. Peabody! For shame!”)

Mr. Peabody and Sherman has made a quite a large amount of money, and yet the cash in the coffers feels empty, the expense of harried parents looking for a sitter that happens to span all of time. In an age where animated films are experiencing something of an Enlightenment (even with Pixar in its downturn phase) shutting up kids for two hours does not need to be the bar we set for animated film tolerability circa 2014.

If this is the Animation Enlightenment, is Ernest & Celestine the apple falling on our collective head, illustrating to us what gravity truly is? (“Apocryphal,” Sherman might shout! Shut up Sherman!) What is it that sets this little French production — like Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a film about two misfits from different species forging an unlikely familial bond much to the chagrin of “the system” — apart from DreamWorks latest uninspiring hit?

In lieu of saying “everything; every single thing that matters to me as a filmgoer,” let’s dive in to what makes Ernest & Celestine my most adored film of the year thus far.

Infused with a sense of whimsy that appeals to children and the children within us all alike – our ability to accept and appreciate storybook flights of fancy (mice maintain a dental-obsessed society that must steal bear teeth from the above-ground bear world, which makes no sense and perfect sense at the same time) as well as the impressionistic storybook visuals that so wonderfully inform the watercolor-tinged animation is imprinted so deeply in our consciousness that it cannot be divorced from the very thing that makes us human – Ernest & Celestine is a film that doesn’t even twitch toward adult-audience friendliness. There are no savvy pop culture gags or mature references that will fly over kids heads here. It’s the kind of film that would leave even the most child-averse spectator wishing they had a progeny of their own to share the film with; watching it, you wonder, “Why don’t I have children to show this to?!”

In lieu of references to Zumba, the film ingratiates its co-leads (Ernest the bohemian bear and Celestine the orphaned mouse) to us by making them dreamers and outcasts in the classic mold. Ernest abandoned his family’s long legacy of taking on judgeships in the capitalist bear world in hopes of becoming an entertainer, and all it has left this fantastic instrumentalist is the opportunity to beg, in song, for food in the street. Celestine lives out her days below ground in the militaristic mouse society as an indentured servant tasked with retrieving bear teeth, needed to push the great mouse empire to greater heights. Taught to fear bears unquestioningly, Celestine secretly finds the notion of them romantic and wants only to sketch the nearly-mythic creatures.

After forming a temporary alliance – the kind a shark would form with a lamprey – that allows both to get something society has forced them to need (food for the destitute bear, teeth for the reprimanded mouse), Ernest and Celestine have their cover blown and the misfits are truly cast out from society, convicts on the run. But this exile allows them to explore for once not what they need but what they want — companionship and someone with whom they feel comfortable sharing their art.

The two hole up in Ernest’s drafty mountain shack, at first wary of each other’s presence. But Celestine, all pluck and curiosity, wears down her grouchy roommate, teasing him that she will be impossible to kill (she poo-poos the effectiveness of mousetraps and scolds bears for using inhumane glue to kill mice), refusing to leave his side until he acknowledges that the reason he is wary to allow a mouse to stay with him is outright prejudice. Even as a rebel, he can’t shake the edict that society has passed down to him: mice and bears should not be allies, let alone friends.

The divinely pleasant second act, a slice of animated heaven, sets out to prove Ernest wrong. In Celestine, Ernest sees immense artistic potential, and after revealing his own artistic soul to his new friend, he goes out of his way to foster hers, providing Celestine with canvas and an always willing living model. Celestine sees in Ernest a gentle soul who has grown ornery through lack of care, and she sets out to look after her new father figure, even holding an umbrella over his head at night so he will not sneeze as snow falls on his nose. When Celestine gets cabin fever (she, unlike her bear companion, is not a fan of winter hibernation) Ernest builds a peephole for her so she can paint the winter landscape outside; what follows is a minute-long sequence for the ages.

A wintery blue line Celestine paints comes to life, rising and falling to the violin-playing of an inspired Ernest. As Ernest’s song grows more jocular, the line becomes a leafless tree, and from that tree, green Spring emanates. It is all meant to be a simple transition that shows us Ernest and Celestine have made it through the winter and can now head outside into the Springtime sunshine, but it also proves that, though artistic collaboration, Ernest and Celestine make each other better, more complete. Once they understand this, they must prove it to the societies that spurn them.

It’s appropriate that our characters dream of lives where they are accepted for their artistic talent in societies that prize military might (mice children are expected to do calisthenics consisting of pushups with mousetraps) or capitalist fervor (the bear family that ends up the brunt of all the jokes runs a candy shop and the dental office across the street, doubling down on the popularity of candy), since Ernest & Celestine combines art and music like so few animated films before it have. The animation is scruffy and imperfect, intentionally calling to mind the pastel simplicity of a children’s book; it evokes more with the three or four sketchy lines that make up Ernest’s fluffy face than the sleek and slick character animation of DreamWorks can usually muster. The score is a marvel, with violin and piano representing Ernest and a virtuosic clarinet scampering up and down the scale playing the role of tiny Celestine. Thanks to Ernest’s own playing, diagetic music becomes an integral part of the film. Early in their friendship, Celestine hears Ernest passionately playing a moving ballad which is punctuated at random intervals by emphatic bangs that shake the foundation of the entire house; it is revealed as we move upstairs that Ernest is smashing the keys of the piano so that marshmallows sitting atop the piano will be thrown forcefully into his gaping maw.

Inevitably, our dreamers are thrown just as mirthlessly back into the horrors of the world in which they live, their pastoral reverie in the wilderness brought crashing to an end when a rainstorm reveals their location to both the mouse and bear police forces on the hunt for the pair. Celestine is captured by the bears, Ernest is hilariously stuffed into cells far too small for him by the mice, and through threat of execution (Celestine is to be executed by mousetrap, and we wonder what might befall Ernest [a bear trap perhaps?] until, hilariously, we see that the mice, always dealing with their inferiority complex, have rigged a bear-sized mousetrap which they test on a stuffed bear), neither will give up on their friend.

Both Ernest and Celestine are put on trial for their crimes as judges shout from their places of power that the mouse and bear worlds must remain separate. The judges are so fervent in their refusal to hear out any plea for love or compassion that neither judge notices that they have become engulfed in flames — flames which started in the mouse world and made their way into the bear world, an outright refusal of their insistence that separation is possible. In a visual feast sure to frighten and delight kids in equal measure, both Ernest and Celestine save their aggressors from certain death by fire even as the judges shout monstrously. When each judge realizes that they have been saved by someone who had no cause to save them, they ask their captive what they would like. Each responds quickly that they would like to be reunited with their friend. Accordingly, the film — perhaps the superior of even recent first ballot Hall of Fame inductees like Frozen and The Lego Movie — could not end on a more perfect note than the one it gives us: everything melts away – buildings, spectators – as Ernest and Celestine embrace, two sketched figures over a blank white screen. There is nothing in all the world but their friendship. The two return to their mountain cabin and begin an artistic collaboration on the best story they know: the story of how they became friends. And it is a great story indeed.