By Rob Cox
---- — FROM A TEXAS MULTIPLEX — For viewers who remember “Peabody’s Improbable History” from the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, there’s probably a heavy nostalgia/novelty factor surrounding “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” And as someone who does indeed remember those 1950s/1960s shorts – through reruns – I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing Mr. Peabody and his sidekick on the big screen, rendered in splendid digital animation.
Aesthetically speaking, “Improbable” was a low-rent affair, with animation quality that, by today’s standards, could probably be improved by any animator-in-training with a high-end computer. Fortunately, “Improbable’s” writing and voice talent made up for the bargain-basement visuals, and the time-traveling adventures of the genius beagle and his adopted boy were witty, entertaining and memorable.
Of course, those old short cartoons were exactly that – short. At four minutes apiece, there wasn’t much room for fat, fluff or excess; and indeed, the animators and writers made the most of what they had. So although “Peabody” 2014 is indeed gorgeous to behold, viewers would be justified, I think, in wondering if modern filmmakers can match “Peabody’s” overall entertainment quality with its visual excellence.
Moviegoers needn’t worry, though: “Peabody” is a fantastic film; it’s well-written, witty, fast-paced and all-around fun and entertaining. It’s that rare animated flick that will probably appeal more to adults than it does to children – and that’s no small accomplishment; this is a family-friendly, kid-centric film through and through.
“Peabody” shares the same basic story with its progenitor: a freak-of-nature white beagle has accomplished everything an ivy-league-educated prodigy can accomplish and wants to tackle the ultimate challenge: parenting.
As the film opens, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) has been Sherman’s (Max Charles) adopted dad for many years, and we see the adoption story told later, in flashback.
As the son of the world’s most intelligent being, Sherman has some definite educational advantages compared to his classmates in public school. The greatest of these is the WABAC time machine, which Mr. Peabody has constructed to provide his son with firsthand education about history.
Of course, being a direct witness to history puts Sherman in the unique position of being able to disabuse classmates – and teachers – of certain ostensible stories regarding historical figures – George Washington and the cherry tree, for instance. That’s precisely what the boy-wunderkind does against class know-it-all and bully Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), ultimately leading to a classroom incident wherein Sherman bites Penny.
When Social Services becomes involved, Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) to his and Sherman’s home for a gourmet dinner. The wonder-dog hopes to diffuse the situation before Social Services can take action.
What Mr. Peabody doesn’t anticipate is that Sherman – in direct defiance his dad’s command against ever using the time machine with anyone else – will deploy the WABAC to both impress Penny and put a permanent end to her bullying. Hijinks and temporal paradoxes ensue…
What impressed me most about “Peabody” was that director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”) and screenwriters Craig Wright, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and Michael McCullers were so effectively able to capture the heart and spirit of the original cartoon series. “Peabody” plays like an extended version of those original four-minute shorts, allowing the beagle-genius and his boy to frolic through time on a much grander scale.
Indeed, during the film’s 92-minute runtime, the pair (along with Penny) encounters everyone from George Washington to Spartacus to Agamemnon to Paul Revere, Gandhi, Ben Franklin, Abe Lincoln, Leonardo da Vinci, King Tut and too many more to name. They trounce through time, breathlessly bouncing from era to era, spouting pun after pun – both cheesy and clever (again, perfectly echoing the original) – in a story that’s mildly convoluted, but so much fun I doubt many moviegoers will care; I certainly didn’t.
At the end of the day, Sherman and Penny manage not only to learn a thing or two about history, but to assist Mr. Peabody in saving the universe itself. And therein lies another of “Peabody’s” merits: with all the historical namedropping and era skipping, it seems unavoidable that many-a-movie-going child will be prompted to begin wondering about and questioning history – maybe even to start studying it; not bad for a kiddie flick.
If you have children then, there’s not a more entertaining kid-centric film currently in release. And if you don’t have kids (or nieces, nephew or grandkids)? I strongly suggest seeing “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” anyway.
Rating: Lone-Wolf Howl (****)
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; firstname.lastname@example.org