Mr. Peabody & Sherman is an update on Peabody’s Improbable History, a segment on the animated Rocky & Bullwinkle Show from the 1950s and 60s created by Jay Ward. Not much has been done with the characters since the sixties, bar a cameo in one of The Simpsons‘ Halloween Specials, although constant appearances in repeats of the show mean they’re looked back on favourably. They’ve made their mark on pop-culture in that internet archive services are nicknamed the “Wayback Machine”, after their method of time travel. They have also inspired more than a few animators, including The Lion King co-director Rob Minkoff who brings us this version.
Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is the world’s smartest dog and adoptive father to Sherman (Max Charles). Peabody has been educating Sherman and expanding his worldview with his time machine, the WABAC, but now it’s time for him to start school. But this doesn’t go well and after a major disagreement with a girl there, Penny (Ariel Winter), Sherman is in threat of being taken out of Peabody’s custody. He decides that an evening uniting the two families would be the best solution… but it ends with Penny being stranded in history. The race is on to get her back and prevent anything else happening to the timeline.
This film succeeds in bringing to the big screen what worked so well in the series, silly adventures in a theme park version of history, and updating it well. The bigger CG resource means that Peabody and Sherman bouncing through history can take place in more fluid and dynamic ways than the limited animation of their original incarnations. It’s all very pretty to look at, both in terms of the locations, like Troy and the Palace Versailles, and in the distinctive and memorable design of the new look WABAC machine. Despite doing so, offering visuals such as very fast-paced chase scenes and the occasional moment of seeing the Sherlock-like way in which Peabody thinks his way out of trouble, it doesn’t lose any of the cheesy humour or charm the original series had. Indeed, there is an excellent selection of truly groan-worthy puns of the type each of the original shorts would end with, along with a lot more pretty clever gags, including more than a few that will have adults’ sides splitting too.
It also updates the characterisations well. It still has Sherman as a loveable fool, while Peabody’s intellectualism and near unflappable nature make him great for both deadpan delivery and for playing the straight man. This extends to the other characters too, keeping in nicely with the same caricatured style of design and behaviour of the historical figures met along the way. Nearly all the cameos by history’s finest get a great laugh, aided by excellent voice casting all round. Special mention should go to Stanley Tucci‘s Leonardo Da Vinci, Ty Burrell giving Peabody just the right nasal haughtiness he needs and Patrick Warburton, a joy in anything he’s in, as a very alpha-male jock version of Agamemnon.
However, the actual plot line itself, while offering lots of time-trotting and potential for gags, does have a few issues. While it is a bit episodic, going from one period to another, that in itself isn’t a problem as it’s a great way of bringing lots of funny set pieces together. The bigger problem is that a lot of the time travel feels a bit superfluous. There doesn’t seem to be that much of a reason for the whistle-stop tour through time, there’s no set mission beyond ‘get back to the present’ until the final act. And while there are some clever turns in that act, including a bit of time paradox-ery and a big crisis to overcome, it all feels a bit anti-climactic. Especially since one of the main conflicts in the movie has been off screen for almost an hour by that point. Also, the character of Penny is more than a bit superfluous, when it’s clear that most of the film’s heart is around the relationship between Peabody and Sherman.
None of these points are deal-breakers though, as this film offers lots of good clean fun, with lots of different times and places to see, and a pair of really endearing characters to guide the audience through them. It definitely would be nice to see this continue, either with a sequel or perhaps a new TV series, since the 60s incarnation’s ubiquity definitely proved that the format works in that medium. It’s just a few missteps from being great, but it offers a lot of laughs, showing that while updating such older cartoons to the modern day has gone wrong before (Yogi Bear, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle), it can be done right. One could say, in the type of wordplay that would typify Peabody, that it would be the perfect treat for a dog day afternoon.