Although more plot-heavy than its 1960s forebear (as I suppose a feature film version of a series of pun-tastic and jokey TV shorts would have to be), Rob Minkoff’s surprisingly witty and warm Mr. Peabody & Sherman seems to have miraculously captured the raucous spirit of Jay Ward’s original creation. For those of you unfortunate enough to have never seen an episode of Rocky and His Friends, Mr. Peabody was an effete and professorial anthropomorphic dog, and Sherman was his “pet boy.” They used a time machine called the WABAC Machine to visit famous historical figures, all of whom sounded like broad borscht belt comedians, and all of whom made “clever” puns. The segments were only mildly educational, but did indeed bank on real historical facts.
Although possessed of several frantic, breathless action-based sequences (as seems to be a prerequisite for all animated features nowadays), this new film version of Mr. Peabody & Sherman seems to possess the same appealing nerdy effeteness of those goofy TV shorts, comedically riffing on ancient history the same way lesser animated films riff on pop culture; no cutesy “Gangnam Style” references here. Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) is a great role model for the “geeks R cool” cultural ethos, proving himself to be endlessly capable and clear-headed in even the most extreme situations. His knowledge of all things is vast, and we feel smarter playing along with the “spot the historical reference.” And how refreshing it is to have a smart hero in a mainstream Hollywood kid movie, especially one that doesn’t dumb down its history for us; we’re allowed to simply know what happened in the Trojan War.
The relationship between Mr. Peabody and his pet boy has now been changed to a father-son relationship. Mr. Peabody adopted Sherman (Max Charles) as an infant, and has been raising him to be a boy genius. Sherman, only seven years old, is not always the best student, but enjoys his father’s little excursions to the past with the WABAC machine, which is now a flying egg-shaped UFO. When Sherman is bullied by Penny (Ariel Winter) at school, it’s up to Mr. Peabody to smooth things over with Penny’s parents at a well-hosted dinner party. At said party, Penny and Sherman sneak into the WABAC to muck around in ancient history, which inevitably means Mr. Peabody has to run to the rescue.
Over the course of the flick, our heroes get to meet Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, George Washington, Albert Einstein, Leonard Da Vinci, King Tut, Agamemnon (played by the always hilarious Patrick Warburton), and even Spartacus. Smarter youngsters will likely already have a working knowledge of these people. Adults definitely will. Eventually the film’s plot does fall down a rabbit hole of causality and time-travel ontological paradoxes of the sort we are climatized to, thanks to repeat viewings of Back to the Future, but until then, the episodic nature of the film makes for some hilarious gags, a good deal of visual variety, and a wonderfully unapologetic smarty-pants mentality.
Something else of note: Mr. Peabody & Sherman may be a rollicking pseudo-educational adventure for kids, but at its heart it’s actually about the rights of gay parents. Just stick with me a second. One of the major plot points of the film is that Sherman may be taken away from his adoptive father because, well, he’s a dog. Replace the word “dog” with “gay,” and you’ll see the subtext showing itself. The schoolkids tease Sherman because his dad is a dog, and he might be a dog too. We can’t have dogs raising our kids! Early in the film, Mr. Peabody is seen eschewing a female rump for his studies. This is a gay dad – and a darn good father – learning to relate to his growing son, all while trying to fight for his rights as a parent, proving that dogs can be parents just as well as humans. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this lightweight kiddie flick, and it’s just a film about a time traveling dog.
Either way, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is hilarious, fun, and enormously entertaining. It has the same corny puns as the original TV show (“You can’t have your cake and edict too,” etc.) and the same gleeful eagerness. It’s nice to see that the kid films of 2014 (The Nut Job notwithstanding) are proving to be fertile ground.