With the voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Stephen Colbert. Written by Craig Wright. Directed by Rob Minkoff. Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor. 92 minutes.
For those of us old enough to remember the Jay Ward cartoons featuring the talking dog Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, there was serious concern about the animated MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN. While Disney’s live action Ward adaptation “George Of The Jungle” was goofy fun, Universal’s mixed live action-and-animation “Rocky And Bullwinkle” was a travesty. There was every reason to believe that this–Dreamworks’ attempt–would be horrible as well.
Instead, this animated adventure shows sufficient respect to its roots while introducing the characters to a new generation. Mr. Peabody (voice of Ty Burrell), is the world’s most intelligent dog, having won a Nobel Prize, consorted with world leaders, and invented the Wayback Machine, a time travel device. Along the way he has adopted the orphan boy Sherman (Max Charles), who accompanies him on his adventures.
The opening segment of the film is their version of a traditional cartoon episode. Mr. Peabody takes Sherman back to the brink of the French Revolution, where they meet Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, have adventures and escapes, and conclude–as in the cartoon–with Mr. Peabody making an atrocious pun. It’s the equivalent of the filmmakers saying, “We know what we’re doing.”
We then get to the main story in which Sherman is starting school and shows up his classmate Penny (Ariel Winter) with his knowledge from his time travel. At lunchtime, Penny bullies Sherman but he’s the one who gets in trouble, bringing in Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), who threatens to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody’s custody. The bulk of the story is Mr. Peabody trying to set things right while Sherman messes things up by taking an unauthorized trip through time with Penny.
As with the classic Jay Ward cartoons, the material works on several levels. There’s plenty of jokes for the youngsters–although all but one of the poop jokes could have been cut–and plenty more for the grown-ups. There’s also a number of voices that amount to “stunt casting” from Steven Colbert as Penny’s father to Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein to Stanley Tucci as Leonard da Vinci. It doesn’t matter if you catch them all, as you’ll probably be too busy laughing.
The animation, especially in 3D, has little to do with the original cartoons, although Mr. Peabody’s bowtie still seems to cling by magic and there is that curious janitor sweeping up at the very end. What is well-preserved is the pedantic Mr. Peabody, offering up some real history lessons amidst the slapstick, and Sherman’s wide-eyed openness to learning from the past. The storyline about maintaining the bond between the dog and his boy may be thin, but it’s strong enough to keep the narrative going and provide an anchor for the gags.
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a family film in the true sense. It is something that will appeal to all ages, even if your kids are laughing at different jokes than you are. When you come back to the present there should be no question that a good time was had by all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.