Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014) / Animation-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for some mild action and brief rude humor
Running Time: 90 min.
Cast (voices): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Stephen Colbert, Allison Janney, Ariel Winter, Leslie Mann, Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, Zach Callison
Small role (voices): Lake Bell, Mel Brooks, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Tobolowski
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenplay: Craig Wright, Michael McCuller
Review published March 8, 2014
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is a big-screen version of Jay Ward's characters whose origin is from the "Peabody's Improbable History" segments of the popular animated TV series of the early 1960s, "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends" (and other various titles). The original cartoons were full of tongue-in-cheek humor and silly puns, with some inventive takes on ancient history delivered for a few choice guffaws. While these short offshoots are brainy and absurd, this movie takes the kernel of what makes them popular and then builds a science-fiction adventure around them, full of plenty of visual effects and action to try to entertain modern audiences. Unfortunately, in so doing, what had once been refreshingly unique and witty has become just another cute comedy that entertains then is lost in the memory of its viewers shortly thereafter.
The character of Mr. Peabody (nicely voiced by Ty Burrell, Fair Game) is the smartest dog in the world, to be sure, and as far as we're shown, he's the only non-human animal who can actually speak to humans in our own language. Beyond this, he wears glasses, he has a degree from Harvard, he can play just about any musical instrument under the sun, and he has invented the WABAC (pronounced, "Way Back") a time machine that can take him anywhere he wants to go in order to rub shoulders with the most well-known characters in history. He is also the only dog, again as far as we know, who has adopted a human being, an equally bespectacled, but naive boy named Sherman (Charles, "The Neighbors"), as his son.
In this film, that son may soon be taken away from our beloved canine by social services, as the boy has been accused of biting a fellow classmate, a feisty female girl named Penny (Winter, Killers). In order to try to smooth things over, Mr. Peabody has invited Penny and her parents over for a dinner to show that he is quite a good dad, only to find that Penny and Sherman have used the WABAC and are AWOL. They've gone back in time in order to settle an argument, and soon Penny has decided to stick around in the times of Ancient Egypt, where she is treated like a queen, and is slated to marry King Tut himself. Now it's up to Mr. Peabody and Sherman to travel back and return her to the present day before her parents find out, but doing so proves difficult, as they also make stops in the Renaissance and the Trojan War when the WABAC goes on the fritz.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is directed by Rob Minkhoff (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Haunted Mansion), working from a script by Craig Wright ("Dirty Sexy Money", "Six Feet Under"). Pop culture references are in the mix, though many of them seem stale, referencing things that were popular a few years ago, like Zumba and Dance Dance Revolution. There is also a preponderance of mildly crude examples of bathroom humor and some double-entendres' which have earned the otherwise innocuous film a PG rating. Looking at the positive side of things, it does teach kids a little bit about world history, at least in a very broad sense. On the downside, it does so through blatant stereotypes that will be readily understood by anyone with even a passing understanding of history (Marie Antoinette loves cake and wants people to have it is about the only joke she has). And everyone in history, regardless of locale, can speak English; I guess a film that starts off with a genius talking dog premise should already be allowed a wide amount of suspension of disbelief.
It's relatively mediocre and lazy for much of the run time, and unlike its "Rocky & Bullwinkle" original humor, the creators of this film seem afraid to really let its sarcastic tone rip, at least until the final twenty to thirty minutes, when it finally kicks into a high gear. It is only then that the proper tone for irreverent comedy and action remains consistent and funny (a brief appearance by a cartoon Bill Clinton for a small gag that will only be understood by adults), and one wonders just how good the film might have been if this flipped-out attitude had been employed from the start of the opening credits.
While it doesn't really capture the wryly witty spirit of the original short television cartoons from which the characters come from, for modern animated movie fare, it's a decent enough diversion for kids, and isn't so low-aiming that adults will find it a chore to sit through, even if there isn't nearly the intelligence required to do the adaptation true justice. It's a bit more like Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure than it is Jay Ward, but given the fact that nearly all children, as well as many of their parents, are too young to have grown up watching the original cartoon, and are seeing these characters for the first time, it's an amiable time-waster about protagonists who waste time traveling through time.
For adults who do remember the original cartoons, which are still great fun today, you might come away thinking the effort to placate modern audiences quite disappointing. Luckily, you won't need to build a WABAC machine when you can dig these classic gems out for a long-overdue spin in your video player of choice.
©2014 Vince Leo