Mr. Peabody & Sherman review: timey-wimey doggy-waggy

Mr. Peabody and Sherman green light

Wonderfully, sweetly geeky, and full of charm, authentic humor, and the sort of goofy yet intriguing adventures that inspire kiddie curiosity in history and art and science.
I’m “biast” (pro): love time-travel stories…

I’m “biast” (con): …but they’re often terrible

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

He’s the other bowtie wearing time traveler, but he predates even the original 1960s incarnation of Doctor Who. Mr. Peabody and his son* boy, Sherman, first appeared in the late 1950s in segments on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and in what one can only imagine is Hollywood desperation to find some previously unmined existing material –for the built-in name recognition, doncha know — they have finally gotten their own feature-length cartoon.

(ETA: *Sherman was called only Mr. Peabody’s “boy” in the original cartoon; the conceit of Sherman being Peabody’s adopted son is apparently new to this film.)

Fortunately for us, no one involved took the easy, lazy, way out of assuming that that built-in name recognition was enough, and they made us a movie that is wonderfully, sweetly geeky, full of charm and authentic humor that will delight the little ones but won’t make grownups want to poke their eyes out. In fact, Mr. Peabody & Sherman features one of the best balances between two opposing forces — the child’s desire for poop jokes and the adult’s task of policing that nonsense — that I’ve ever seen in a kids’ movie. For when Sherman, who is only seven and a half, after all, cracks a poop joke — or was it a fart joke? — Peabody rolls his eyes at the boy in appropriate parental disapproval. Brilliant!

Mr. Peabody (the voice of Ty Burrell: The Incredible Hulk, National Treasure: Book of Secrets), for those not in the know, is kind of like Buckaroo Banzai: genius inventor, scientist, musician, athlete, gourmand, mixologist; he’s a gentleman and a scholar. Oh, and he’s a dog. I don’t know if there’s any historical explanation for how this is possible, and this new film never broaches it. But there is, in a move that represents how deeply nerdy a flick this is, a great deal of explanation for how a dog was allowed to adopt a human boy; precedent-busting court cases were involved. Which we learn because poor Sherman (the voice of Max Charles, who played four-year-old Peter Parker in The Amazing Spider-Man) has gotten into a fight at school with mean-girl Penny (the voice of Ariel Winter: ParaNorman), and now social services is involved.

What’s so perfectly plausible that it requires no explanation? Time travel. Peabody’s invention the WABAC — pronounced “way back” — machine gets in the way during a dinnertime makeup get-together with Penny and her parents at Peabody and Sherman’s house. Sherman and Penny take a quick jaunt — she goads him into it, mean girl that she is — and that causes some disturbances in the timestreams that Peabody must repair. So off the three of them go again, into the distant past…

Ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy are but two of the places we are whisked away to, with much good-natured silliness and tons of glorious bad puns along the way. These are the sorts of goofy yet intriguing adventures that could well inspire kiddie curiosity in history and art and science; I know this is just the sort of movie that would have sent eight-year-old me running happily to the library to find out more about the likes of King Tut and Leonardo Da Vinci (whom we meet here, such as they are in exaggerated animated form). But the marvelous script, by veteran TV writer Craig Wright — though he’s a veteran of grownup stuff, including Lost and Six Feet Under and United States of Tara — isn’t only silly. Names from Ghandi’s and to Stephen Hawking’s are dropped in clever ways, and the film even explores the concept of the uncanny valley (how we get weirded out by replicas of humanity, as in “realistic” CGI animation, that aren’t quite perfect enough) without calling it such, in a running joke of Da Vinci’s invention of a mechanical child. There’s sophisticated stuff happening here.

(The animation here? It’s gorgeous, and so stylized that no uncanny-valley problems could possibly crop up.)

Director Rob Minkoff has a checkered cinematic past: his The Forbidden Kingdom is a cheeky action fantasy; his The Haunted Mansion is a horror in the way it shouldn’t be. But Minkoff also gave us the lovely part-animated Stuart Little movies. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is closest in tone to them: cute and kind and absolutely cheer-worthy in its delightfulness.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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