Mr. Peabody and Sherman | B-
A super-intelligent dog, his clumsy yet enthusiastic boy sidekick, and a time machine: This slyly clever and silly little premise made the original Peabody’s Improbable Histories cartoons a beloved part of millions of boomers’ Saturday morning routines back in the ’60s, and has sustained the characters through decades of syndicated reruns. Mr. Peabody was originally a backup segment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and the pedigreed pooch has tended to play a bit of a second banana to his more famous stablemates, which might be why other Jay Ward studio creations like George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right were ahead of him in the Hollywood production schedule. This is likely a good thing, as those live-action, Brendan Fraser vehicles were pretty disposable, and the less said about the moose and squirrel’s big-screen fiasco the better.
Those old toons were cheaply made, and calling them “animated” is a compliment, but, fueled by the comedic genius of Jay Ward, writer Bill Scott and a gifted crew of voice actors, they were marvels of timing, sophisticated wit, corny gags and zany pop culture mockery that zipped along at breakneck speed. Mostly they were irreverent, a tone that studio suits don’t really understand, and only grudgingly tolerate.
It’s a pleasant surprise that the current version of Mr. Peabody and Sherman arrives with something of that old madcap zing intact, though with a few modern, focus-tested concessions. The first snag is that the movie is rendered in 3-D, a pretty much unavoidable part of seeing a CGI kids movie these days, though the clunky black plastic glasses do match nicely with our bespectacled heroes. The second issue is that a good deal of sentiment has been shoehorned into the narrative, with Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) actually being the legal adopted father of Sherman (Max Charles), who has been ret-conned into being an orphan. This leads to a bit more hugging than in the source material, and also leads to a subplot about an unpleasant social worker (voice of Allison Janney) who believes that a dog, even a brilliant one, is not emotionally prepared to raise a human boy. Apparently the rest of society has accepted the whole “genius talking canine who built a time machine in his Manhattan bachelor pad” thing and is ready to move on to nitpicking his parenting skills. Another new addition is Sherman’s nosy classmate Penny (Burrell’s Modern Family daughter Ariel Winter) who starts out as a bully, then becomes a cohort in adventuring; she’s not cannon, but it never hurts to find a way to appeal to girls. Otherwise the movie pretty much sticks to the formula, with the gang jumping in the “WABAC” time ship and bouncing around through important eras and meeting caricatured versions of important historical figures like Robespierre, George Washington, King Tut, et al., and eventually having them come together in a free-for-all climax a la Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The script does include some of the series’ trademark groaners, as said of Marie Antoinette, “You can’t have your cake and edict too.” Frequently though, the smart wordplay takes a back seat to frantic movement, with all the twirling, rushing, near misses and chaos you’d expect in a 2014 DreamWorks animation release. Ultimately the movie is a pleasant enough diversion, but not an inspired work of art. Not that it needed to be; without too much tampering, the likable duo has stood the test of time.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is rated PG, runs 92 minutes and is in theaters now.