“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”
Starring (voices): Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Allison Janney, Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann
Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild action and brief rude humor
Droll time-travel comedy lovingly echoes its television predecessor
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
As soon as I heard the first pun, I knew we were in good hands.
Sandpaper-dry wit was an essential element of the “Peabody’s Improbable History” cartoon shorts, which debuted as a portion of the original “Rocky and his Friends” animated series (ahem) way back in November 1959. The Einstein-smart canine, Mr. Peabody, always capped one of his time-travel lecture/adventures with a groaningly awful pun, which flew right over the heads of younger viewers (and demonstrated the degree to which the cartoon show’s humor played to adults).
This phenomenon is addressed in this new big-screen delight, as young Sherman reacts to each of Mr. Peabody’s deadpan observations by reflexively laughing, and then, with a puzzled expression, saying “I don’t get it.”
Definitely a chuckle, every time.
Director Rob Minkoff and scripter Craig Wright have retained the wit and playful innocence of the original “Peabody” TV cartoon shorts, while adding a generous dollop of the snarky humor today’s viewers will recognize from the “Shrek” series. (No surprise, since this new “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” comes from DreamWorks Animation.)
And the worried “Peabody” purists out there can rest easy, because Wright clearly understands and employs the narrative and comic sensibilities that properly honor the source material. He gets it.
As further aided and abetted by Minkoff and editor Tom Finan’s zippy pacing, not to mention a droll voice cast, the resulting film is 92 minutes of inventive, larkish delight.
The core premise is that Mr. Peabody (voiced with polite know-it-all-ness by Ty Burrell) is a genius dog who is able to master any craft, skill or intellectual challenge he chooses to embrace. He can out-deduce Sherlock Holmes, and out-MacGyver MacGyver, when it comes to escaping from a hopeless situation.
Genius doesn’t confer companionship, though, so — some years back — Mr. Peabody adopted a foundling infant who now has grown to kidhood. Thus, the core joke: Instead of the usual boy/dog dynamic, these two always are introduced as Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman (superbly voiced by Max Charles, of TV’s “The Neighbors”).
Wanting the boy to receive a proper education until the public school system can take over, Peabody invents a high-tech gizmo he dubs the “Wayback Machine” — initially WABAC in the original TV series, as a sly reference to the primitive UNIVAC computer that was making waves in the 1950s — a time-traveling device that allows Sherman to learn history first-hand, from those who made it.
This film opens with just such a trip, as Peabody takes Sherman to the 18th century and the eve of the French Revolution, where the boy discovers that a purely innocent remark by Marie Antoinette — responding to a request for dessert — sparks the revolt against the monarchy.
Proving, Peabody gravely explains, that poor Marie “couldn’t have her cake and edict, too.”
Ya gotta love it.
Unfortunately, Sherman’s in-person exposure to history proves troublesome when he enters school for the first time, unwittingly showing up a classmate who recites the apocryphal canard about George Washington chopping down a cherry tree. The humiliated little girl is bratty Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter, of TV’s “Modern Family”), who rules their elementary school with the snooty authority of a little bee-yatch.
One thing leads to another, and suddenly Sherman’s very presence in Peabody’s household is threatened by the imperious Miss Grunion (Allison Janney), a representative of the Bureau of Child Safety and Protection, and a people-purist who cannot abide the thought of a little boy being raised by a (shudder) dog.
Worse yet, the ill-behaved Penny has conned Sherman into demonstrating the Wayback Machine — somebody Peabody warned the boy never, ever to do — and gotten herself betrothed to 9-year-old King Tut, back in ancient Egypt, little realizing what happens to an Egyptian king’s wife, once he dies.
The resulting calamity expands to engulf all sorts of historical figures and hops through the ages, not to mention an increasingly dangerous time-travel paradox/anomaly that might even stump a certain Gallifreyan and his adventure-spanning TARDIS.
Along the way, Wright — a playwright also known for scripting darkly comic TV shows such as “Six Feet Under,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Underemployed” — has fun “solving” numerous historical mysteries, such as how Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) finally gets the proper smile from his model, Mona Lisa (Lake Bell).
The supporting voice talent is marvelous, starting with an immediately recognized Mel Brooks, as Albert Einstein. Patrick Warburton dominates the third act as the boastfully manly Agamemnon, introduced while sneaking his men into Troy via the fabled Trojan Horse. Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann pop up as Penny’s parents; Guillaume Aretos is hilarious as the haughty Robespierre; and gravel-toned Dennis Haysbert has an eye-blink cameo as an adoption judge.
Danny Elfman’s score is as lively as the film’s increasingly chaotic action, with plenty of orchestral pizzazz and the occasional melodic rim shot to punctuate a verbal or visual gag. Best of all: no songs. Having characters break into warbled lyrics would be an abomination in this material, and Minkoff and Wright wisely resist the temptation.
Peabody’s various spur-of-the-moment rescues and solutions are visualized in a manner that echoes the on-screen deductions made by Sherlock Holmes, whether played by Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. This also is a cute bit, although I wish Minkoff could have paused on those hovering, engineering-style mental blueprints a bit longer, so we had time to read all the whimsical details.
In terms of tone, pacing and atmosphere, Minkoff’s work here closely resembles the Roger Rabbit shorts (“Tummy Trouble” and “Roller Coaster Rabbit”) with which he began his big-screen directing career, back in 1989. Minkoff also co-helmed 1994’s “The Lion King,” which demonstrated an understanding of how to transition from a hilariously frantic cartoon short to a long-form dramatic animated feature.
Then, rather oddly, Minkoff detoured into live-action junk such as “The Haunted Mansion” and 2011’s barely released “Flypaper,” not to mention the not-quite-right “Stuart Little” and its ill-advised sequel. I dunno what prompted DreamWorks to give him a chance with this update of Mr. Peabody, but Minkoff definitely rose to the challenge with considerable panache.
The result is successful enough to demand a sequel, and — unlike far too many sequels prompted more by money than dramatic necessity — the time-travel gimmick easily lends itself to plenty of equally amusing adventures that could be realized with similar sharp wit.
I find it difficult to believe that anybody under the age of 40 (50?) has the faintest idea that Mr. Peabody and Sherman had a life before now, but if this DreamWorks update prompts new fans to seek out and view the original cartoon shorts, so much the better. They’re readily available via home video or on YouTube (and I recommend the adventure with Edgar Allen Poe).
History isn’t often this much fun.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com.