'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'
For anyone who grew up giggling at the cartoons of Jay Ward, sitting through the cinematic adaptations of his work can feel like particularly cruel torture. His simple, hand-drawn surrealism has been turned into bloated turkeys like ‘The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle’ and ‘Dudley Do-Right’, both of which seemed to be made by people who had zero understanding of what made the source material special. Thankfully, with in ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’, Ward aficionados finally have a film adaptation worth seeing.
Based on Ward’s famous sketches about the time traveling adventures of a genius dog and his dorky adopted human son, the new CG animated feature perfectly captures the tone of the source material to offer a joyfully nostalgic trip for parents and a warmhearted introduction for children. Sure, it’s ultimately just a slight and silly trifle, but that was always the charm of the original shorts as well.
The plot is only lightly expanded from the original sketches. Mr. Peabody is still a Nobel Prize and Gold medal winning dog, and Sherman is still his nerdy adopted son. They still have a WABAC Machine to facilitate time traveling adventures, and all those adventures involve lightly satirical versions of historical figures. It’s smart-stupid comedy and very much ground zero for the excellent adventures and bogus journeys of Bill and Ted.
To expand things to feature-length, ‘Lion King’ director Rob Minkoff merely adds in a little unconventional family twist. A mean girl at school (Ariel Winter) bullies Sherman (Max Charles) for having a dog for a father. So, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell, delivering a pitch-perfect impression) invites her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over to dinner for a charm session. It works, but unfortunately Sherman shows the girl the WABAC Machine, prompting Peabody and Sherman to engage in some time traveling adventures to bring the girl back. Along the way, we get to hear Mel Brooks voice Einstein, learn about Leonardo Da Vinci’s (a particularly unhinged Stanley Tucci) creepy mechanical son, and discover just how stupid the Trojan army truly was. (Patrick Warburton plays their leader, so obviously they’re spectacularly dumb.) Yep, it’s a romp and a good one.
The key here is simply that the jokes work, the animation honors Jay Ward’s designs, and the emotional core is just strong enough to elicit a few sniffles. It all sounds very stock and easy, yet it’s all too rare for a family film to actually get all those things right. Rob Minkoff is clearly a strong storyteller (see: ‘The Lion King’) and a fan of Ward (see: this movie). He pulls off the balancing act so nimbly that it’s hard to notice the difficulty of his task.
‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’ is a big, bright, goofy, hilarious and warmhearted family film that honors the source without being chained by it. Sure, it isn’t groundbreaking, but not all family entertainment has to be. It just has to be entertaining, and a CG family fantasy this entertaining is rare indeed. It’s a wonderful bit of fluff that gives classic animation adaptations a good name. Not enough to encourage an avalanche of Jay Ward adaptations, of course – just enough to prove that such things can actually be done well. After watching Robert De Niro bottom out as Fearless Leader, that seemed impossible.