‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’
Considering how much effort it makes to be educational and clever with wordplay, it’s kind of a shame that the biggest laughs “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” got from kids at a recent preview came from seeing them pooted out the backside of the Sphynx.
But, to be fair, that’s probably also the kind of thing kids found funniest back in 1334 B.C., right?
Directed by Rob Minkoff, who also directed “Stuart Little” and “The Lion King,” “Mr. Peabody” is a spectacular, revved-up 3D update of the classic cartoons featured between adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle on early-‘60s Saturday-morning TV. That’s classic in terms of content, by the way, not animation technique, as you can see from watching their comparably primitive, extremely 2D “Improbable History” shorts on YouTube.
It was a smart show, though, and funny in a cerebral sort of way (though my taste at the time ran more toward “George of the Jungle” and “Dudley Do-Rght”). Every week, the genius beagle Mr. Peabody and his nerdy adoptive son Sherman would climb into their WABAC time machine and travel to some famous era in history, where Mr. Peabody would solve some sort of problem involving the likes of Robin Hood, Beethoven or Ponce De Leon, and sum up the episode with a terrible pun.
The new “Mr. Peabody” is similarly episodic, stringing together time-traveling journeys to ancient Egypt to interrupt the wedding of King Tut, the French Revolution for a run-in with Robespierre, the Renaissance to help Michelangelo make the Mona Lisa smile and the Trojan War, where Sherman has been recruited by muscle-brained Agamemnon. Though there’s an increasingly complicated linking device involving wide-eyed, excitable Sherman (Max Charles of TV’s “The Neighbors”) and his mean-girl schoolmate Penny (Ariel Winter), who talks him into an unauthorized trip in the WABAC machine. With emotional peril provided by a malevolent child-welfare busybody (Allison Janney) who’s determined to prove Mr. Peabody an unfit parent.
And all of that additional narrative baggage weighs the story down. Not too badly, certainly not enough to make this film a serious disappointment, but enough to obscure some of the charm of the original.
The original cartoons had it easy, by comparison, because they didn’t have to worry about moving a feature-length story along or character development or emotional resonance. Mr. Peabody is a genius who just happens to be a dog? That’s a given. He zooms around in a time machine with an adopted human son? A given. All they had to do was teach a little history and try to be funny for four minutes.
But the new “Mr. Peabody” can’t get away with that. Everything has to be explained, elaborated and dramatized. Mr. Peabody isn’t just a canine genius. He’s a Nobel prize winner, a captain of industry and an advisor to world leaders, who speaks every language, plays every musical instrument, mixes a mean cocktail, dances zumba-style and also happens to be a licensed chiropractor. And the relationship between Mr. Peabody and Sherman isn’t merely explained with a sentimental montage set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” it’s tested with tribulations designed to give them an even greater appreciation of how much they love each other.
Even when it comes to the funny stuff, “Mr. Peabody” had to go big and broad, not only with low-bar juvenile silliness (King Tut rhymes with butt, Sherman observes with a snicker), but with high-energy, grand-scale action/slapstick set pieces. Including a climactic disaster that rips the fabric of space and time and threatens the world as we know it.
Nonetheless, the spirit of the original is still there: the whimsicality that’s inherent in a very superior dog as a very bemused observer of the foibles of mankind, the reassuring certainty that reason will triumph in the end, and, above all, the winking delight in toying, punishingly, with words.
Though that’s not a delight everyone will share. It’s a terrible thing, of course, when Mr. Peabody tells Sherman he thinks the ancient Egyptians married too young, “but maybe I’m just an old Giza.” But you have to love the fact that it presumes kids today will get the joke — since there’s at least a fair chance some won’t know what “geezer” means either.