There’s a font of smart-alecky pop culture silliness that originated from Jay Ward Productions animation studios in the late 1950s and early sixties including the characters of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Boris and Natasha, George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right. One of these, featured on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, was a series of five-minute cartoons, Peabody’s Improbable History, featuring the genius beagle, Mr. Peabody, and his adopted human son, Sherman, who travel through time in their WABAC machine, make bad puns and learn history lessons from famous people.
As well as reinventing the story in 3-D, the creators have attempted to do the same for the characters, adding emotional depth and a redeeming message in a story of a canine father (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) learning to love his son better, while society learns tolerance for different kinds of blended families. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is the first completely animated feature from director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) since The Lion King, though apart from a theme of paternity and high vantage points, the films have little in common. Visually, this is strictly DreamWorks: The Manhattan setting looks like a sixties version of the future, with bright-coloured rubber-toy characters and clean, geometric backdrops. Mr. Peabody is fast-paced and jammed with rib-poking historical references, but it couldn’t be called witty, even on the broadly winking level of the original cartoon.
The movie begins with a shot of the New York skyline, featuring Mr. Peabody’s own glass-box-in-the-sky modernist home as he expounds his accomplishments as inventor, master chef, fencing expert and Harvard “valedogtorian.” Fussy and self-important, he’s borderline insufferable, though it’s a saving grace that when provoked, he loses his sang-froid and reverts to his canine nature, growling and even biting. And he has a soft spot for the kid he adopted, as we learn in a mawkish montage scored to John Lennon’s Beautiful Boy, outlining the story of how he found and adopted the orphan Sherman.
On Sherman’s first day of school, his know-it-all behaviour earns him the enmity of the cute but mean Penny (Ariel Winter, also from Modern Family). After the two have a scrap, the authorities are called in, and the large, booming-voiced social worker, Miss Grunion (Allison Janney) is disgusted with the idea that a dog can be a parent and is determined to investigate. Mr. Peabody, anxious to resolve the issue, invites both Grunion and Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) to his condo for some gourmet hospitality, cocktails and free chiropractic treatment.
Meanwhile, Sherman tries to impress Penny by showing her the WABAC machine: They zoom off to Egypt, where she decides she’d like to marry the boy King Tut. Sherman rushes back to get Mr. Peabody’s help, and the dog hypnotizes his dinner guests and races back in time. In the convoluted plot, one trip leads to another, from the Renaissance with Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) to the siege of Troy, where the dog and boy find themselves in the Trojan horse, with King Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) getting his Greek team pumped for the big game.
What is initially just convoluted becomes wildly manic in the final third after Sherman breaks the rule of travelling back in his own lifetime: The space-time continuum has been ripped and something resembling the climax of Ghostbusters seems to have been unleashed, as things explode, lights flash and historical characters wander the streets of New York. Parents will get the historical jokes but are unlikely to be amused; kids won’t get them, but might laugh anyway.