Saturday mornings growing up were nothing to my brother and me without the adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle and their assorted friends, especially Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The improbable adoption of a boy by an improbably brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning pooch somehow made sense when combined with dizzying wit, playful puns, and engaging historical references. Utilizing his WABAC (as in way back) machine, Mr. Peabody and Sherman travel through time to observe history in the making—Franklin’s discovery of electricity, DaVinci’s painting of Mona Lisa, and so on.
I have to admit, I hadn’t even heard that Hollywood was making a movie about this animated nugget, and my first suspicion was that it would suck. I mean, I’ve had the misfortune of having reviewed several other movies culled from Jay Ward’s 1960s heyday, including The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right—films that completely missed the mark of their origins’ verve and smarts. Color me delightfully surprised that Mr. Peabody and Sherman, directed by Rob Minkoff and written by Craig Wright, joyfully re-creates the basic premise without pandering to the dimwits in the audience and without feeling a need to be too reverential.
The plot is relatively straightforward: Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) must try to save Sherman (Max Charles) and his schoolmate Penny (Ariel Winter) after the juveniles have used the forbidden WABAC to go back to ancient Egypt. Along the way, the trio make detours to the Italian Renaissance, the French Revolution and the Trojan War. Each side trip is fraught with danger, but the kind that delights intellectually and dazzles visually—especially, I imagine, in the 3D version which I didn’t see. As this is an 85-minute movie, Minkoff and company had to pad the thrills and chills. Sherman begins school, eager to share his wealth—no, his bonanza—of knowledge, but is quickly made the butt of a cruel prank pulled by Penny. The result is that Mr. Peabody stands to lose custody of his son, courtesy of the deliciously vile social worker Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), setting in motion the olive-branch offering of a dinner with Penny’s family.
This entire side story allows the viewers to visually feast on the rich colors and sleek set pieces (Mr. Peabody’s swank penthouse is to die for!) that remind one somewhat of the style of The Incredibles. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t wallow too much into the expected sentimentality that we know will come, when Sherman realizes that it’s perfectly OK to have a dog as a parent, and Mr. Peabody acknowledges that he needs to let Sherman make his own mistakes. And thankfully, here is a movie that doesn’t dumb down to the lowest common denominator, but rather, revels in the glories of knowledge and culture.