There’s a telling moment in the chunk of exposition that opens Mr. Peabody and Sherman. A young Peabody, hoping to be adopted from a puppy shelter, is passed over in favor of a more conventional dog. “I don’t want that one,” says the little boy Peabody tries to impress. “He’s sarcastic.”
And there you go. In the most direct terms possible, DreamWorks Animation lets us know we’re in for a mostly toothless update of television producer Jay Ward’s classic “Peabody’s Improbable History” shorts. The trademark snarkiness that distinguished the property in the 1960s is not altogether missing from this polished big-screen adaptation, but there’s a pronounced swing toward sentimentality that, at least for adult viewers, doesn’t always serve it well. Luckily, Mr. Peabody’s 21st-century schmaltz is shored up by occasionally dazzling visuals and liberal doses of wit.
Part of the film’s newfangled treacle is simply a result of stretching a four-minute short into a 90-minute feature. The original cartoons, which ran as back-up segments of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, are surprisingly ready-made for the 21st-century feature treatment, and the movie’s narrative hews close to its roots. The eponymous canine (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell), a bona fide genius and expert at practically everything, decides to alleviate his lonesomeness by adopting a boy, Sherman (The Neighbors’ Max Charles). To facilitate Sherman’s education, Peabody builds the WABAC, a time machine that lets the pair witness historical events firsthand. The only caveat is that they never use the machine to travel to a time when they already exist because, you know, every time-travel movie ever made.
Following a beautifully animated but ultimately ill-advised montage set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” Mr. Peabody picks up with Sherman’s first day of school. He quickly gets into a fight with Penny (Ariel Winter, also of Modern Family), a pretty little bully who takes aim at Sherman’s unconventional parentage. Enter Ms. Grunion (The West Wing’s Allison Janney), a social worker who wants nothing more than to remove Sherman from Peabody’s custody. Before you can say “time-space continuum,” Sherman and Penny boost the WABAC and commence with the havoc-wreaking.
The pacing is predictably bugnuts, with the characters visiting Revolution-era France, ancient Egypt, and Renaissance Italy, to name a few. The story is episodic by design, mimicking the bite-size format of the original cartoon shorts. Ultimately, the story suffers from this disjointedness. Early adventures are energetic and entertaining, but by the time the heroes stumble into ancient Troy—just in time for wooden-horse shenanigans—it all starts to wear thin.
The humor, though, is a surprisingly successful blend of highbrow wit and lowbrow scat jokes. There are a lot of sight gags that revolve around things being enthusiastically ejected from giant butts, but they’re balanced by some terrifically inventive sequences, most notably ones that involve a hilariously creepy mechanical kid invented by Leonardo da Vinci. That other mainstay of modern animation, endless pop culture references, is also present in bulk, but when those gags include genuinely funny references to Spartacus and Stephen Hawking, they’re much easier to take.
Even the movie’s gooey emotional arc is at least inspired by the source material: Sherman wants a dad, but Peabody keeps him at arm’s (leg’s?) length, insisting that the boy call him by his proper name and never “Daddy.” The movie engages in some warm, fuzzy extrapolation by rendering Mr. Peabody incapable of telling his adoptive son that he loves him. Throughout the course of the film, and thankfully without the intervention of Whoopi Goldberg, Mr. Peabody eventually becomes a more affectionate father and learns to utter those three magic words.
Visually, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is often terrific. The look of the film is Mad Men via Baskin Robbins, with lots of retro-futuristic design elements rendered in an ice-cream color palette of pastel greens and pinks. The character design and animation are in line with the mod jazziness of the shorts, with just enough postmodern swank to keep it interesting. The eyes creeped me out a bit—they reminded me a lot of the lifeless glass peepers favored by taxidermists—but that’s probably just me.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman exists in some pretty long shadows, and it never outshines either its small-screen origins or its big-screen competition. (Honestly, would you want to go up against Pixar or Studio Ghibli? Me, neither.) With its heavy-handed sentimentality and a storyline that just sort of meanders from one round of hijinks to the next, it’s not a movie that will lend itself to repeat viewings, at least by adults. But it’s got enough wit and pep to make the first round painless and fairly entertaining, and earns the distinction of being the first movie to bring Saturday morning godfather Ward’s characters to the big screen with any kind of success.