Perhaps like the key demographic for DreamWorks’ latest animation, I must begin by admitting I had been unfamiliar with the source material, Peabody’s Improbable History, a recurring animated segment on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show, circa the 1950’s. Inspired by my enjoyment of Rob Minkoff’s big-budget 3D animated feature Mr. Peabody & Sherman, I sought it out on YouTube and stumbled upon an astonishingly (yet innocently) racist adventure to the Great Wall of China. The adventures that the current Mr. Peabody & Sherman have this time around are, thankfully, more modern in their approach, while retaining the spunk and silliness of the few cartoons I caught up with.
That aside, Miknoff’s film is delightful and hilarious, with a few silly jokes (including an escape from certain death out of the butt of a Egyptian statue). I suppose this is the kind of film (or age) you have to be in the mood for, but it works for what it is, a slick retread of a Saturday morning cartoon designed to entertain parents as much as their kids with a few “adult” jokes.
The promise is simple: Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) lives an incredible life; he’s a talking dog (and a business magnate, inventor, scientist, Nobel laureate, Olympic medalist, cultural icon, gourmet chief and mixologist) who refuses to take orders from any man, adopting an abandoned child, Sherman (Max Charles). Peabody has unlocked the secrets of time travel, inventing a traveling orb called the WABAC. Essentially, he provides a primary source history education for young Sherman. Instead of going out to a movie on a Saturday night, they visit Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.
Sherman’s education turns out to be at odds with his history teaching and rival classmate Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter). After defending himself from Penny’s bullying, Sherman finds himself in trouble with his principal, while Peabody’s parenting is called into question by Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), the local DYFS agent. Peabody, in an effort to quell the situation, invites the Petersons (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert) over for dinner and drinks. It, of course, doesn’t go well; that is until Peabody, also is a licensed chiropractor works his magic, allowing Mr. Peterson to samba again. Unfortunately, Sherman shows Penny the WABAC and they end up traveling to ancient Egypt where she finds herself engaged to King Tut.
What follows is one big race against time through various time periods and historical settings. Peabody knows everybody from his pal Leonardo da Vinci to Bill Clinton. Throughout, the film remains one spunky wall-to-wall action film with several one-liners and lots of attitude. Going above and beyond what a five-minute reoccurring cartoon can do, the story focuses on Peabody, an intellectual who means well despite his reasoning, as a single parent trying his hardest to protect Sherman from the elements.
The adventure and humor works, with the film delivering precisely what it promises with a good deal of joy. I normally find the films of DreamWorks Animation to lack the storytelling craft of Pixar (and this certainly true of Almost Home, a lackluster short that appears before the feature here), however Mr. Peabody and Sherman won me over by virtue of knowing exactly what it is and delivering just that.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is now playing in theaters everywhere.