This is the last in-depth post I’ll have in this series, Kids’ Stuff. If you haven’t been keeping up, and/or you’re interested in reading about the importance of the insights that supposed “children’s” movies offer us, I’d encourage you to read my last post on ParaNorman, as well as the others over The Book of Life, and A Bug’s Life.
But to end, I’d be remiss not to talk about what swiftly became one of my absolute favorite movies. No, not The Iron Giant. I couldn’t unpack that film in one post, or even a whole series.
This was a movie that I saw trailers for and impulsively rolled my eyes at. It was obviously another hollow attempt to capitalize on some misplaced nostalgia for parents, to cash in on an already existing franchise, re-skinned for modern young audiences. It was another hour and twenty minutes that would be spent pandering to kids’ affinity for butt jokes and wacky non-sequiturs.
It was Mr. Peabody and Sherman, and it ended up being much more than I ever expected it could be.
What’s Going On (Plot Stuff):
Truly, Mr. Peabody and Sherman‘s story is a simple one. Mr. Peabody is a genius dog who, after saving the world in every way, decided to adopt a boy and become a parent. Together, they go on many adventures through space and time (with the use of a time machine called The Wayback) so that Mr. Peabody can teach Sherman about history, science, culture, and character. However, when it comes time for Sherman to start at school, he is provoked by a girl named Penny who is jealous of his extensive knowledge, and mocked for his father being a dog. Sherman, in response, bites Penny, prompting a social worker to conclude that this is a result of his being raised by a dog who is, obviously, an unfit parent. Seeking to ease tensions between the two families and the social worker, Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents over for dinner, during which time Sherman reveals the Wayback to Penny. This leads to chaos when Penny gets lost, and Peabody gets roped into helping them all find their way back to the present to make the night go smoothly so that Sherman won’t be taken away.
Why It’s So Dang Good:
First of all, I adore this movie for a lot of reasons besides its message. It’s a perfect blend of groan-worthy silly moments and flawlessly timed wordplay and visual comedy. It employs montage, flashback, and exposition in a truly engaging way.
I’ve mentioned Erik Erikson the developmental psychologist before. Remember how his whole theory of psychosocial stages was based on dichotomies? Well, the very first stage, the one that we are in as soon as we’re brought into the world, is trust vs. mistrust. And this is a huge theme in the movie.
Now, this isn’t the sort of trust vs. mistrust that I experience whenever the milk is one day past the expiration date, all because I had one bad, scarring experience at camp with a spoiled carton when I was in 10th grade. Just as deep-seated? Maybe. But different. This is the most basic sort of trust. Trust that your basic needs like food, water, shelter, and care are being met. So, it seems only natural that these needs are initially met by one’s parents.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a movie very largely about parenting. It’s about all the struggles that come with it, all the joys. I mean, think about the very premise of the relationship: Mr. Peabody adopts Sherman because, as he puts it, “how hard could it be?”, only to discover how hard indeed it could be. And admittedly, Peabody is a genius. On my list of Most Capable Dogs, he makes at least the top 2, along with this guy.
Now, I am not a parent, nor do I intend on becoming one in the near future, but I can only imagine that Peabody’s position here is reflective of most parents. There’s no way to truly, completely be prepared for the responsibility of parenthood. People have many reasons for having children or otherwise entering into some form of parent/guardian/mentor role, but I’d venture to assert that a large part of it is a compulsion to pass on the things that we’ve learned for the benefit of another.
And yet it’s that very compulsion, that feeling that we have something worthwhile to offer another, that becomes a source of insecurity, too.
Yes, we may be raising our child (or fill in the blank) to be knowledgeable, cultured, etc., but will that be enough? Is what I know and what I have to offer really going to be enough to give them a good life?
Because this person, this child that I am responsible for, trusts me and depends on me more than any other individual.
I mean, the question of where to place our trust is literally the oldest conflict that we know of. Just check out Genesis 3. The whole question of The Fall isn’t “why did Eve doom us all by dragging Adam down with her?” as it’s too often been framed, but rather “why couldn’t humans trust God over trusting themselves?” It’s a question we’ve been struggling to answer and learn from ever since, and one we’ve never quite pinned down.
One of the aspects I love most about this movie, though, is the way that it functions as a narrative about non-traditional family structures. Peabody’s ability to be a good parent is one of the main conflicts because, well, he’s a dog.
But being a dog represents so much more. Someone who’s a single parent. Someone who has spent time in prison and is now back in a parental role. Someone who is in the LGBTQ+ community. Someone who’s an adoptive parent.
Mr. Peabody stands for all the parents and guardians whose ability and love for their children has been called into question because of their marginalized status in society’s eyes.
This is seen most potently in the opening conflict with Sherman reacting to Penny calling him a dog. There’s a stigma about being a dog, and you can so easily sub in a child with gay or lesbian parents being called “gay” or some other horrible slur for Penny’s mocking toward Sherman. And the reaction to Sherman’s biting her also resonates of familiar narratives- “what else would be expected of a boy raised by a dog?” The same scene takes place, explicitly spoken or not, every time a young person of color sits in the office after there’s a fight, bound to the violent narrative that people are likely to assume of them.
Sherman then confesses to Peabody that he lashed out because Penny was calling him a dog, and we see Peabody’s heart drop.
What do you do when you’ve offered everything to your child, but they still suffer for your own disadvantages, weaknesses, or insecurities?
But, ultimately, the message of this film is that it’s not the things we offer as parents or as skilled individuals that make a difference to those we love. It’s our character. It’s our ability to trust one another wholeheartedly and unconditionally.
In the same way Sherman trusts Peabody to care for and teach him, Peabody also learns to trust Sherman in his own ability and judgment. This may be the most sobering and wince-inducing revelation of all for parents.
The proverbial moment of letting go. Trust vs. mistrust comes full circle and all that you’ve invested in your child melds into who your child is as an individual, and you have to trust that will be enough.
As always, there’s so much more to this film. A great moment where Sherman falls into the trap of hyper-masculinity and machoness with his peers in the Trojan War. A subtle nod to Peabody raising Sherman in a way that leads him to be accepting of and excited about relationship with those who are different from him. Undertones concerning the shortcomings of privilege.
But ultimately, the question is this: Do you trust yourself to be enough for the person you’re investing in, and do you trust them enough to the come into their own?
Parenting is hard when you’re an imperfect person. But we’re not imperfect people trying to raise perfect people. We’re just people doing our best. And we have to trust that’s enough.
The Short and Skinny:
-Great animation and mix of humors; adorable characters
-No matter how capable a person you are, you’ll never be fully prepared for parenthood
-Trust is a two way street, but that doesn’t make it easier
-Some parents are given a worse hand from the start in raising their kids. It’s important to recognize and advocate for the validity of family models that aren’t “traditional”.
-What you have to offer is enough simply because of your willingness to offer it in the first place.
-“No doubt about it- every dog should have a child.”
Thank you for hanging with me through this series. Sometimes it can be a hard sell. People will say I’ve taken these things too seriously or ruined these movies by analyzing them too much. But I disagree. I talked at the beginning about how these movies are some of the most important because they communicate what it means to be human to younger folks. And if we can find a good answer in there, if we can challenge ourselves and our children to look for the truth and to look for God in these stories, then wouldn’t that make us feel more confident walking into the theater? Wouldn’t that make us a little more confident in our trust for one another?
Wouldn’t that help us to live out better stories?