Oh DreamWorks Animation, what will we do with you? It’s clear that you’re trying so hard to reinvent yourselves, to take that genuine affection people have for How to Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda and recreate it in your other films. In some ways you’re getting REALLY close, but you just can’t stop going back to that same bag of tricks that was already stale ten years ago.
I can see how you thought you were going down the right path for your newest film, Mr. Peabody & Sherman. You took a pair of charming, but largely forgotten cartoon characters and brought them back to life, you hired one of the directors of The Lion King – one of the most beloved animated films of the last 20 years – perhaps not realizing that Mr. Rob Minkoff hasn’t been involved with anything good since then, and you even (mostly) stayed away from the same kind of bad voice casting that plagued your films last year. I see that you tried, and I really, truly appreciate it, but… well, it didn’t work.
Don’t get me wrong, DreamWorks, when it comes to the title characters, arguably the single most important aspect of this film, you got it spot on. The characters of Peabody and Sherman are not only strong on their own, but there’s also a heartfelt sweetness in the relationship between them. I can’t emphasize this enough, you got this part ABSOLUTELY right, and I was even somewhat moved at times because you sold this relationship so well. Unfortunately, you just got everything else about the movie wrong.
I know that sounds harsh, but if you’re willing to walk through this with me, maybe we can find some things to do better next time.
The first, and most crucial problem with this movie is that the story is an absolute mess. You have some decent ideas in there, but you didn’t arrange them well. Instead of each individual piece supporting the larger arc of the story, you just sort of have a pile of disparate ideas, and little pieces of story Scotch Tape to try to hold them together. What do I mean by story Scotch Tape? Well, for example, let’s look at the fact that the film has no less than four different central conflicts – and that’s not even counting separate episodic conflicts, but we’ll get to those in a minute. You wanted to build the father and son relationship between Peabody and Sherman, so you had that relationship threatened by a child services agent. But you also wanted to give Sherman a struggle with his self-identity, so you forced him together with a school bully through very tenuous story justifications. Not only that, but you also wanted to have a lost in time angle to this, where Peabody and Sherman have to escape from the past and get back to the present; AND to top things all off, you needed a “Peabody and Sherman save the world” finale. To reiterate an old saying that Mr. Peabody cites in your film, you really can’t have your cake and eat it too.
You may have been able to get away with juggling a couple of these ideas at the same time, but you didn’t tie them together organically, and, if we’re being honest, I’m not sure there is even a way to tie all four together. The movie as it currently stands is constantly being pushed back and forth in multiple directions; to further one central conflict it has to abandon two more, and it creates this really frustrating stop-start pacing in the film. I need only point to the black hole scene to give an example of a really ham-fisted segue into the next story beat. In that particular moment, you had to connect two wildly different story moments, and so you slapped an action scene over the top of it hoping we wouldn’t notice the huge gap underneath.
This also makes it hard to really commit to any of the themes you’ve established. The movie is reduced to a series of loosely connected episodes, and even then each episode has its own conflict built in creating even more story threads to juggle. All this chaos and the ever expanding scope of the thing means that the movie very quickly loses sight of the single thing it does best, and that’s Peabody and Sherman themselves. Instead of getting to spend time with these great characters and see their story play out, they just become devices to move the plot along from point A to point B.
The other thing we need to talk about is your sense of humor. Everyone liked Shrek when it came out. I liked Shrek, audiences liked Shrek, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences liked Shrek, and it was clear that you guys liked it too since you made three more movies and a spin-off. That being said, and this may be hard to hear, Shrek came out in 2001. That’s almost 15 years ago. We’ve all moved on from then and we’ve moved past that type of humor. The same jokes that worked on us in 2001 just feel really sad now. I don’t want to see Greeks assaulting Trojans with their body stench, I’m bored by boats being launched out the butt of the Sphinx, and I want to crawl out of my skin when I hear a Greek soldier use the phrase “don’t tase me, bro.” That well has gone dry, and it’s time to board it up and move onto something better.
Finally, when trying to achieve a sense of wonder it needs to come from a real place of sincerity. Mashing together Hiccup and Astrid’s flight in How to Train Your Dragon with “A Whole New World” from Aladdin just feels crass and disingenuous. You have a movie here that looks really good – the art design is solid and the animation work is great – but you waste it when you just show us stuff we’ve already seen. These kind of shortcuts don’t work the way you want them to, they just remind us of the times they were done better.
I know this has been rough, DreamWorks, but it’s a discussion we need to have. I’m sincerely rooting for you guys, and in some ways you’re so close, you just need to stop falling back on these bad habits. Invest in your characters, keep working at a story until it resonates rather than taping a few different ideas together, and go for honesty and sincerity rather than stale jokes and visual short cuts. You guys could be a great animation house, and I’m really hoping you get there. I still have some reservations about How to Train Your Dragon 2, but I’m really hoping for the best. We’ll talk more then.
Thanks for listening.
P.S. I love the fact that you guys are doing theatrical shorts now, but it’s a shame that the very first one you did was really terrible. Fingers crossed for next time, though.