Jay Ward Productions gave us some indelible characters. Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and George of the Jungle sprung from the inventive mind of the TV producer. Good TV, but generally really bad movies.
Blame Brendan Fraser. Blame ham fisted adaptations that valued slapstick over satire. Blame Rick Moranis for not bothering to learn “world’s greatest no-goodnik.” Boris Badenov’s Pottsylvanian accent.
No matter how you slice it, no good ever came from trying to harness the anarchy of Ward’s storytelling on the big screen.
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is the first of the Ward adaptations that isn’t afraid to embrace the heady but puerile parody and puns that characterized his most famous work, “Rocky and His Friends.”
Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the world’s smartest being and his son, appeared on that show in the weekly Peabody’s Improbable History segment. Now they’re on the big screen, voiced by “Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell and Max Charles.
It’s the origin story of Mr. Peabody, a beagle in the world of humans—imagine “Family Guy’s” Brian with less attitude but more PhDs. He’s a Harvard grad, a Nobel Prize winner, advisor to heads of state and in his spare time he invented planking and auto tune.
With his adopted son Sherman he’s also a time traveller, taking the WABAC machine—“It’s not WHERE we’re going, but WHEN!”—to various spots in history and it’s Sherman’s firsthand knowledge of George Washington that really kicks off the story.
On his first day in school his version of the George Washington legend annoys classmate Penny (Ariel Winter). After a showdown in the lunchroom, Sherman bites Penny which gets the attention of the school councilor Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney). She’s disgusted that a dog was allowed to adopt a boy and threatens to take the Sherman away.
Peabody counters with a charm offensive, throwing a dinner party for Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) and Grunion. His plan is almost derailed when Sherman and Penny hijack the WABAC machine, whirling through space to ancient Egypt, the Trojan War and Leonardo Di Vinci’s studio where they discover the secret of Mona Lisa’s smile.
Can Mr. Peabody rescue them from their time travels before Penny’s parents notice she’s gone and the space-time continuum is irreparably destroyed?
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” lacks the political bent of the original cartoon, but it is loaded with references from literature, history and popular culture. It’s the only kid’s movie with an Oedipal joke and I can’t imagine a Minion punning, “Marie Antoinette could have kept her head if she had issued an edict to distribute bread to the poor. But you can’t have your cake and edict too.”
It’s stuffed with the spirit of Jay Ward, which is a good thing, even if it does veer off path with a sentimental father and son subplot.
The voice work is fun—there are few animated pleasures greater than hearing Patrick Warburton’s confident dumb guy routine—and the animation is top notch and like the best of Ward’s work, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” realizes that the material has to work on multi levels, the surface and the satirical.