Oh, those sly ’60s animators. Just when we kids thought we were enjoying quality cartoon satire, these tricky pen and inksters came along with something called “Peabody’s Improbable History” as part of the equally subversive The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and, before we knew it, we were learning about the great feats and individuals of the past. And puns. Lots and lots of bad puns.
Fast forward over 50 years, and now Hollywood has got its hands on the property, placing it within the always dicey family film dynamic which dictates “more fart jokes, less learning.” Luckily, The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff is behind the scenes, making sure to keep the scatology slight and the old-school spoofing more or less intact. The result is Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a 3D CG success, a winning work that treats the source with respect while forging a franchise that could easily go on for a few more films.
Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) is the world’s smartest talking dog. He is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, an inventor, business tycoon, and gourmet cook. He’s also lonely and longs for a family. When he discovers an abandoned infant, he immediately moves to adopt him. One court case later and Sherman (Max Charles) is seven and starting school. After being bullied by a prissy classmate named Penny (Ariel Winter), Mr. Peabody is confronted with two problems. One is the girl’s snooty parents (Steven Colbert, Leslie Mann) and a sour social worker named Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney) who wants to revoke the adoption. While Mr. Peabody plans a dinner party to try and appease everyone, Penny and Sherman take off in their time travel device, the WABAC machine, running into Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), and King Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) along the way. Eventually, they cause a rip in the cosmos that requires Mr. Peabody’s acute intellect to fix.
When it starts, it looks like Mr. Peabody and Sherman will be like every other non-Pixar/Disney cartoon currently raking in the dough at your local Cineplex. It’s all eye candy and fart jokes. Then something surprising happens. Minkoff, along with screenwriter Craig Wright, reminds us of why we fell in love with these characters in the first place, paying homage to Jay Ward’s wicked sense of humor as well as the original Mr. Peabody’s tendency to teach. They even go so far as to end each time traveling segment with one of those patented puns that used to turn each installment into a overlong setup waiting for such a punchline. It’s a friendly kind of callback, a recognition that there may be some people in the audience who actually remember this dog and boy show from the source.
There’s also a nice message here about family and friendship. Penny hates Sherman because he’s rather smart, and she resorts to calling him a “dog” as a way of demeaning him. The notions of love and appreciation are also discussed, since our canine connoisseur really does care for his other species offspring. Sure, there are dopey quips and obvious pop culture riffs to contend with (for example, Mr. Peabody supposedly invented Zumba) but they don’t dominate the discussion. Instead, the entire film feels well crafted, taking into consideration the mandates of the genre as well as the entertainment needs of the audience. The 3D element adds an additional spark to the time travel sequences, but in essence, this is a good old-fashioned kid’s film with a decidedly modern spin.
Of course, whenever we cranky old baby boomers hear that someone is milking our past for a present day payoff, we cock a wary eyebrow. In the case of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, there’s no need for such cynicism. This is endearing eye candy posing as entertaining education, which was the intention of this material all along.