There are those, like me, who are a little long in the tooth and who remember the “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History” segments from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. We traveled through time with the dog and boy duo every Saturday morning for a twisted view of historical events, much as the “Fractured Fairytale” sequences twisted those old tales.
Beware Bad Reboots
Fast forward to the present. Filmmakers are embroiled in a trend of bringing Jay Ward cartoons to the big screen, as well as other non-Ward icons from the same era, whether it be a schmaltzy live action picture like Underdog or the horrible CGI/live action hybrid that was The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and the even-worse live action Boris and Natasha. There was also a live action version of Dudley Do-Right that had to be one of Brendan Fraser’s worst career decisions, although his George of the Jungle movie was slightly less of a disaster.
Those previous attempts made me very skeptical that the CGI movie Mr. Peabody and Sherman (the characters are voiced by Ty Burrell and Max Charles, respectively) could pull off the delicate task of staying true enough to the source material to delight the show’s original fans while still wowing young audiences for whom this is the first introduction to the characters. While this movie isn’t a gem on the scope of other DreamWorks pictures like the first two Shrek movies, neither is it as bad as those that came before it in the “retool 1960s cartoons” genre.
A Dog and His Boy
In the cartoon, it was stated that Sherman was Mr. Peabody’s adopted boy, but it that was just a bit of background information, and it was never addressed in any major way. In the movie, their father/son relationship is a crucial part of the storyline. Mr. Peabody is the world’s smartest dog, a Nobel Prize winner so accomplished in almost every field that he figures fatherhood will be a breeze. He wasn’t adopted by anyone when he was a puppy, but he gets the chance to turn that around by adopting an unwanted human infant. He figures that his intelligence will make child rearing easy, and that misconception feeds many of the film’s jokes.
Just as in the cartoon, Mr. Peabody has a WABAC machine for time travel. He uses it to teach Sherman about history firsthand, but this causes conflicts with snooty classmate Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) when he flaunts his firsthand knowledge. He bites her in retaliation for her taunts and gets stuck having her family over for dinner in the aftermath.
Predictable Plot Points
Predictably, he shows Penny the WABAC, and the two kids run rampant in the past and cause a rift in the space/time continuum. Yes, that’s been a plot device for countless movies like Back to the Future and its ilk, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman doesn’t really cover any new territory here. The kids whisk through settings like Troy and Ancient Egypt, and typical genre antics include Penny being kidnapped by King Tut (Zach Callison) and the characters meeting such historical notables as Leonardo DaVinci (Stanley Tucci).
Meanwhile, a cranky social worker, Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), would like nothing better than to remove Sherman from Mr. Peabody’s care. It seems like there always has to be some requisite threat, and she’s that stereotypical character in a long line of similar characters, from Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan in Annie to Ving Rhames voicing Cobra Bubbles in Lilo and Stitch.
Humor for Both Kids and Adults
Like most kids’ movies today, Mr. Peabody and Sherman walks a fine line between keeping the youngsters’ attention while tossing in some humor for the adults. In this case, we have things like the silly butt joke with the Sphinx that will appeal to kids raised on Cartoon Network and Nicktoons, while the adults will catch things like an Oedipus reference.
But don’t worry, the adult humor isn’t so off-color as to be unsafe for little ears. It doesn’t rise anywhere near the level of The Lego Movie, which is just as much for the grown “kids” as the little ones, and Mr. Peabody makes plenty of the puns for which he was noted in the cartoon. This movie actually promotes some solid Christian values like the importance of parenthood and family loyalty.
Don’t expect a diamond in the rough if you bring the family to see Mr. Peabody and Sherman. But don’t expect a clunker on the level of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, either. You can’t help but admire the sweeping CGI that goes so far beyond the flat Jay Ward animation, and the action is punctuated by a typical upbeat Danny Elfman score. It’s a decent enough package to keep the kids entertained without shattering parents’ and grandparents’ original view of the two beloved characters.