Adults will fondly remember a regular segment within The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show that was more charming than the entirety of the rest of the show combined. Indeed, “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History” was the part of the series where a pedantic renaissance beagle named Mr. Peabody would take educational trips in his Wayback Machine with his adopted son, Sherman. Rocky aired in the 1960s, but I still fondly remember watching Saturday morning reruns.
In short, DreamWorks Animation pulls yet another piece of pop-culture history out of the vault for a shot at cashing in on nostalgia. It works, mostly. The good news is that where 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle failed to charm, Mr. Peabody & Sherman picks up the wit and subversion ever so slightly. The puns are still present in abundance. Poop jokes (a nearly necessary evil in children’s cinema) have entered the mix. For the record, Peabody is no amused by such bodily humor. I approve of Peabody’s sense of disapproval.
This movie is a success as far as kiddie flicks go, but it’s not perfect. The main problem occurs with the schmaltzy aspects of the story. Whereas the television show didn’t much dwell upon the absurdity of a dog acting as father to a child, the movie gets hung up on the concept. We are made to fear for their continued relationship when real-life circumstances threaten to tear father and son away from each other. If the movie had stuck with being a rip-roaring adventure ride (and there is plenty of that to be had), the movie would have been a full-on winner. Instead, the filmmakers aim for Pixar-grade sentimentality, which shouldn’t be attempted by any old screenplay. Kids and adults alike don’t need all the schmaltzy speech-giving at the end to enjoy this film.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Peabody is winningly voiced by Ty Burrell. We witness Sherman (Max Charles) entering school, which isn’t nearly as much of a learning experience as his adventures with dad. Once there, Sherman meets his new frenemy, Penny (Ariel Winter). These two can’t stand each other. She shamelessly picks on him, and he bites her in response. A social worker (Allison Janney) tries to remove Sherman from Peabody’s custody, and the dog tries to make nice with Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert & Leslie Mann). Somehow Sherman and Penny end up in the time machine with Peabody. The three travel to ancient Egypt and various other locations of the past. They run into King Tut, Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci Marie Antoinette. Yes, it’s a little bit Bill & Ted but Mr. Peabody did this sh-t first with the likes of Geronimo and Edgar Allen Poe in the original series.
The trio enjoys a wealth of historically-based fun. Da Vinci is jealous of Sherman and wants to create his own adopted son. Peabody & Sherman mess up the space-time continuum a little bit, so they must fix things up with varying degrees of success. Penny (of course) must be rescued from Tut. That gender-role aspect of the film is a shame. So two strikes, basically, can be weighed against the overall positive experience of this film. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) has crafted what will probably be an underappreciated gem.
The film looks slick as hell. The original TV show appeared cheap even by standards of yesterday. On purpose. The movie looks as dressed up as can be, which is a bit disconcerting when weighed against the charm of the series. The material is sophisticated enough that parents will feel like their child might be learning something, but it’s not too heady. I think this movie exists so parents can feel less guilty about letting their kids rock out to mindless sh-t on other occasions. That’s fine. Whatever works, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman works on many levels.
Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found at Celebitchy.