If a boy can adopt a dog, surely a dog can adopt a boy – at least, if said dog is a certified genius that graduated as the “valedogtorian” from Harvard, is a captain of industry, and advises some of the world’s top political leaders. And if he’s also capable of building a time machine. Oh, and also if he’s just desperate for his own home and family, having never been adopted from the puppy farm. Fine, really just that last one.
In Rob Minkoff’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, the Lion King director takes on the classic comedy of mismatched father-son duo, Mr. Peabody (the dog) and Sherman (the kid), with some impressive rewards. Loosely based on a segment from the sixties-era The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the animated outing follows the adventures of Peabody and Sherman as their personal time travel machine, the WABAC (pronounced “way back”), stirs up some unexpected complications, sending the duo and a new pal careening through time and space.
The film picks up as Mr. Peabody (never “Dad,” never “Dad”) and Sherman are prepping for Sherman’s first day at school (as the kid seems to be seven-years-old, we can assume he’d be home-schooled until this point), which they celebrate by zipping back to start of the French Revolution for some first-hand experience. Sweet-faced Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) might not be the genius his dog-dad is, but luckily enough, he’s intellectually curious and game enough to follow along with Peabody’s many lessons, and although he consistently barks, “I don’t get it!” at plenty of Peabody puns, the kid is pretty adorable. Of course, he’s soon picked off as the target of a school bully, the plucky Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter), who is pretty damn pissed off when the new kid bests her at a history lesson.
Peabody’s classification as a dog is never in question, but the reactions to his genetic makeup are decidedly mixed – Marie Antoinette doesn’t bat an eyelash at him – but Penny instantly latches on to it, and uses it to get Sherman in trouble. Soon, Peabody and Sherman are embroiled in a case involving Child Protective Services (no, really), and a mad social worker determined to take Sherman away. Peabody, ever a smoothie (and voicework by Ty Burrell certainly helps that case), devises a plan to invite Penny and her parents over to work things out.
Sounds good, right? Well, it is – until Penny and Sherman hop a ride on the WABAC and everything goes haywire. What follows is a series of cheery mishaps that send Peabody, Sherman, Penny, and then also sometimes other Peabodys and Shermans through the wormholes of history to land them in cool places at cool times. They meet da Vinci while he’s painting the “Mona Lisa”! They get stuck in the Trojan Horse as it rolls towards its destiny! King Tut tries to marry Penny! Fun! FUN! And also history.
The original Peabody and Sherman segments were always heavy on the puns, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn’t abandon its roots when it comes to the feature – this thing is laden with puns (not leaden, as it were), but most of them are genuinely funny and quite creative (one regarding Marie Antoinette and her cake obsession is particularly good). The film also leans on a number of large-scale gags, but those are generally well-made, too (the winner here is an ancient Egypt-set bit in which Peabody pretends to be the voice of a god while perching in the appropriate statue, a good idea until the thing literally burns down). Yet, for all its charm, the actual animation of Mr. Peabody & Sherman is relatively flat and uninspired, and the added element of 3D doesn’t do much to punch it up.
There’s also some real sweetness here, as Minkoff uses a sugary-sweet montage to track us back through Peabody and Sherman’s many adventures, culminating in the revelation of Sherman’s origin and how Mr. Peabody actually came to adopt him. The duo has a special bond, and although Peabody struggles with the more human emotions, it’s a charming enough tale about family and loyalty. It may not be an instant classic, but there’s an appeal here that should translate to plenty of audiences.
And yet, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, for all of its historical humor and family fun, fails to answer one major question: what is Peabody’s bowtie attached to?
The Upside: Plenty of pun-filled humor to delight both adults and kids; a zingy take on history that should compel curious kids to delve deeper; an origin story worth building off for a new franchise
The Downside: The animation style is flat and uninspired; the 3D is nonessential; the middle section of the relatively short film sags
On the Side: Mr. Peabody first appeared as a character on Rocky and His Friends, followed by The Bullwinkle Show, before launching the Peabody’s Improbable History segment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which serves as the main basis of Mr. Peabody & Sherman.