You might need the assistance of a time machine to find a child who is clamoring for a “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” feature film remake.
More than many of Jay Ward’s animation productions, the early 1960s cartoons present a high degree of difficulty to stretch into a full-length movie. They were just five minutes long. The wordplay-heavy humor was geared toward adults. And although the cartoons are revered by aging animation fans, they haven’t received the rerun love they deserve in recent years.
A series of sound decisions and a few unfortunate ones result in an entertaining but forgettable diversion from DreamWorks Animation. Fans of the original “Peabody’s Improbable History” shorts that ran on “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” won’t be horribly offended. Parents will appreciate that the bodily functions jokes are kept to a minimum. Little kids will enjoy the movie, but they like pretty much everything. (See: “The Smurfs 2”)
Although the time travel core is intact, there are few retro touches in the remake. Genius dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted son Sherman live in a modern architecture penthouse that you would expect from a tech billionaire. The WABAC machine is no longer a charming series of dials and lights and vacuum tubes -- it’s now a spaceship with a high tech hangar that looks like a collaboration between Tony Stark and Batman.
Worst of all, Peabody and Sherman are strapped with a first act full of 21st century problems. Needing to fill an extra 85 minutes, the filmmakers clumsily explore the characters’ therapeutic needs. Sherman is bullied at school. Both characters say things they regret in the heat of passion. Peabody has trouble saying “I love you.”
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” gets much better when the pair go back to the basics: Traveling in time and offering a helping hand with history. Leonardo da Vinci, King Tut, Marie Antoinette and George Washington all make enjoyable cameos. Scenes in the bowels of a Trojan horse with King Agamemnon providing the most comic value. (Thanks once again to Patrick Warburton, a first ballot inductee should anyone ever build an Animated Voice Actor Hall of Fame.)
Technically, “Peabody” looks great, with plenty of bright and soaring visuals. The ending is a bit of a letdown – yet another “The Avengers”-esque colorful space vacuum threatening to destroy a big city. But director Rob Minkoff, who helped make “The Lion King,” ably juggles various characters and conflicts to the tidy finish.
The late Bill Scott seems irreplaceable as the original voice of Peabody, but “Modern Family” star Ty Burrell is a sound choice. He conveys intelligence, self-satisfaction and just a hint of warmth, and gets the cadence of Peabody’s swashbuckling linguistics right. Other than a few swordfights, the majority of the crises throughout the film are solved by intelligence.
One more benefit of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman”: The movie is a good excuse to go back and watch the old cartoons, created by Ted Key and produced by Ward -- many of which are available on YouTube. The shorts hold up well, and humor that whooshed right over your tiny head will suddenly make sense. Key and Ward were clearly making these cartoons to entertain themselves.
2 1/2 stars