Much of the young target audience for “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” is probably unfamiliar with its origins as a segment of the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” shows during the late 50’s and early 60‘s. Even many of the younger parents may have never heard of “Peabody’s Improbable History.” But the story of a genius dog and his rascally young human son going on adventures through time translates seamlessly when told with the wit, charm and heart that are found in this recent iteration of Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
The bespectacled and bow-tied Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a beagle that grew up an orphan and learned to become the best at pretty much whatever he tried, including business, athletics and inventing. One such invention is his time machine, the WABAC. In a touching montage, we see how Mr. Peabody ended up adopting his son, Sherman, voiced by Max Charles (ABC-TV’s The Neighbors). Peabody and Sherman travel through time, learning history through experience. Things become complicated when Sherman sneaks his classmate Penny (voiced by Burrell’s Modern Family cast-mate Ariel Winter) into the WABAC. After he loses her in Ancient Egypt, Sherman must enlist the help of Peabody and an adventure through different eras in time begins.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is at its core a story about an unlikely father and son. Not only is Peabody a dog raising a boy, but he’s also incredibly smart and used to mastering everything, so Peabody is thrown when raising a child proves to be far more complicated than he anticipated. Ty Burrell already plays a beloved father as Phil Dunphy on Modern Family, but for Peabody, Burrell drops the lovable doofus routine, to skillfully voice the articulate dog. Co-star Charles has a quality to his voice that fits the youthful wonderment of his character nicely, though. Fair warning: there may be a moment or two where you wonder just how many times he can say, “Mr. Peabody” – it’s a lot.
The father-son relationship serves to create a compelling storyline for adults to follow, while still being entertaining or at least understandable and not distracting for younger viewers. Catering to both kids and the adults who take them, is a goal that director Rob Minkoff and writer Craig Wright (based on Jay Ward’s series) seem particularly concerned with achieving. For every butt joke or moment of physical comedy, there’s a reference that will almost certainly go over a young child’s head, like the ancient Greek character that refers to the troubled family life of Oedipus. For the most part, the film’s humor works, though the jokes occasionally slip into blatant pop-culture references. These kinds of jokes may be good for a small chuckle, but ultimately feel too easy.
It’s particularly noticeable when the film goes for the easy joke, because it seems to otherwise be endeavoring to make a smart movie for kids. This is a nice deviation from the many kid’s movies that talk down to their audience. The objective to teach and inform becomes evident in the atypical choices that the time-travelers go to, like the French Revolution and the fall of Troy. There are points where the film fixates too much on one particular element of these arenas for the sake of comedy, like Marie Antoinette having an obsession with cake, but overall it seems there is a concerted effort to spend a decent amount of its 92-minute runtime educating.
As Dreamworks Animation has done numerous times before, in films like Shrek and How To Train Your Dragon, they’ve created a movie for kids, which is engaging and funny enough for any audience member to enjoy.
By Adrian Vina
Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.