Capturing the zeitgeist sometimes comes down to a fluke of timing, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman—the reasonably clever, reasonably charming new comedy from DreamWorks Animation—has the bad fortune to open in the wake of a massively clever, massively charming animated competitor, The LEGO Movie. That shouldn’t matter much to family audiences hungry for as much decent product as possible, but with LEGO so fresh in the collective consciousness of broader audiences, Peabody can’t help but play like small potatoes.
At the very least, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a reminder that Hollywood’s obsession with reboots/revivals/re-imaginings can be done right. The characters originated on the beloved ’60s cartoon series The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and the track record for bringing segments from that show to the big screen is pretty dreadful. Both 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (with Robert De Niro and Rene Russo) and 1999’s Dudley Do-Right (Brendan Fraser and Sarah Jessica Parker) were major flops with critics and audiences. 1997’s George of the Jungle (also starring Fraser and inspired by a separate series from Rocky and Bullwinkle creator Jay Ward) was a hit, but not the kind that’s remembered fondly.
Peabody director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) makes the wise choice of keeping the new film strictly animated, no live action needed. That decision both respects the original material and frees up the possibilities for a story that begins with a wacky premise—a dog, Mr. Peabody, who happens to be a certified genius adopts a human boy, Sherman, as his son—and gets crazier from there as the duo travel through time in Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine (that’s pronounced “way-back”). He’s a sort of doggie Doctor Who, although his travels are confined to Earth.
The original Peabody shorts are known for their smart, pun-driven humor and amusing riffs on history and culture, all of which is retained here. But to flesh out the story to feature-length, screenwriter Craig Wright (whose eclectic and considerably more mature TV writing credits include the abortion episode of Six Feet Under and the season two “Orientation” episode of Lost) adds a sentimental parent-child arc that’s overly familiar from numerous other animated features.
By the time the film begins, Sherman (voiced by child actor Max Charles of The Neighbors) has had quite an education from his travels with Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell, nicely playing against his Modern Family type), and all that knowledge makes Sherman an outcast at school. He’s also targeted by jealous mean girl Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter, Burrell’s Modern Family daughter) because his father is a dog. Peabody, eager to help his son fit in, invites Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for dinner, and the peacemaking promptly takes a detour when Penny and Sherman wind up taking the WABAC for a spin (against Peabody’s strict instructions).
Any movie that has the potential to introduce young kids to important historical figures like Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein is already doing something right, and Peabody puts a silly spin on history that’s just irreverent enough to entertain without losing its subliminal educational value. Young viewers won’t even realize they’re learning something, while parents will appreciate the surreal touches (Beethoven totally owning a game of Dance Dance Revolution, Penny getting engaged to a nine-year-old King Tut) and punchlines (“Marie Antoinette sure likes cake”). Think Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure for kids, and you’re on the right track.
Although the brisk running time (roughly 80 minutes, sans credits) is a plus for short attention spans, Peabody winds up feeling awfully lightweight. It doesn’t help that the third act—involving a tear in the space-time continuum, natch—is frantic and conventional, and the filmmakers could’ve made better use of a very game Allison Janney as villainous Child Services rep Miss Grunion.
As a peppy time-killer with some witty touches, Mr. Peabody gets the job done. But don’t be surprised if you have the sudden urge to theater hop for another round of LEGO as soon as it’s over.
Director: Rob Minkoff
Writer: Craig Wright, based on the series produced by Jay Ward
Starring: (voices) Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Allison Janney, Leslie Mann, Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Lake Bell
Release Date: March 7, 2014