Film Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Genius dog and his adopted son try to repair a hole in the space-time continuum in an amusing update of the 1960s cult cartoon.

Weird but fun, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a short, fast-paced comedy based on cartoon figures from the 1960s cult favorite "Rocky & Friends." Good-natured and smarter than expected, the movie will still be a tough sell to anyone unfamiliar with the Rocky brand of humor.

As explained in a couple of quick montages, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a genius beagle who adopts Sherman (Max Charles), a foundling. Peabody uses his WABAC (or "Wayback") time-travel machine to teach Sherman history, introducing him to characters like George Washington and Mahatma Gandhi.

All seems fine until Sherman starts school. Bullied by classmate Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), Sherman runs afoul of Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), a counselor who threatens to remove him from Peabody's home.

While Peabody tries to make amends with a dinner party for Penny's parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert), Sherman and Penny slip into the WABAC machine, causing complications that bring them and Peabody to ancient Egypt, the Trojan War, and Leonardo Da Vinci's (Stanley Tucci, using Chico Marx's accent) workshop.

As so often happens in sci-fi plots, a hole in the space–time continuum threatens to destroy the planet. With historical figures like Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton), Marie Antoinette (Lauri Fraser) and King Tut (Zach Callison) dropping into modern-day Manhattan, along with giant Egyptian artifacts, Peabody and Sherman must find a way to repair time before it's too late.

Craig Wright's screenplay is bursting with good ideas, like Peabody's diagrams as he is plotting out solutions to obstacles, or his crazy but accurate encapsulations of historical moments. (In a nod to the old series, the movie is rife with groan-inducing puns, like Peabody characterizing himself as "an old Giza.") Minkoff, whose first feature was The Lion King back in 1994, knows how to pace gags and to paint distinctive characters with quick, broad strokes.

While it thankfully avoids snark, the movie suffers from occasional dull bits and mixed messages. Penny and Sherman are rewarded for lying and stealing, for example, and the pleas for tolerance become a bit too overt by the climax.

But there are structural issues as well. In the original series, Peabody had about four minutes in each episode to identify and solve historical problems. In the movie, Peabody's only real goal is to bond with Sherman while giving his son the space to be himself—a sentimental cliché that no amount of space–time anomalies can disguise.

One of the real charms of the original was its funky, DIY animation. Apart from its retrograde 1960s decor, Mr. Peabody & Sherman often looks awful, in particular the beagle himself.

Despite these drawbacks, Mr. Peabody & Sherman captures much of the manic, surrealistic fun of the original cartoons. Children may not understand all the jokes, but Jay Ward and Bill Scott—the team behind the original series—always skewed their work toward adults anyway.