It’s possible, I suppose, that some children may find things to like about “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” The animated feature about a time-traveling dog with a genius IQ and his human companion has even more than the recommended daily allowance of scatological humor and B.O. jokes for the average 8-year-old.
Anyone much older than that — and certainly anyone who remembers the cartoons on which the film is based, which ran as segments accompanying Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons — is in for a big disappointment. Despite an updated CGI animation style, the movie has all the superficial attributes of the 1959-64 series but none of the charm. Both revolve around a boy named Sherman; his canine master, Peabody; a time machine; and bad puns. Yet by visual standards alone, the characters, rendered in eye-popping 3-D, resemble nothing so much as Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats.
They’re just as lifeless and inexpressive, too.
This is especially odd, considering that writer Craig Wright and director Rob Minkoff go to great lengths to flesh out the characters’ back stories and devote inordinate attention and energy to what is presented in the film as the father-son relationship between talking beagle Peabody (voice of Ty Burrell) and Sherman (Max Charles), the human child he lives with.
While it’s true that in the original series, Peabody legally “adopted” Sherman, anyone who has seen the old show can tell you that the relationship between the two was closer to pet ownership than paternal custody. Portraying Sherman as Peabody’s legal dependent, instead of as his slightly dimwitted best friend, not only violates the spirit of the original series but also is just plain weird.
“Peabody’s Improbable History,” as the television segments were called, was an irreverent, even subversively educational romp through famous moments in history. The new film is a sappy comedy about the difficulties of contemporary parenting. Sure, the plot superficially hops around in time — from the French Revolution to ancient Egypt to the Italian Renaissance to the Trojan War — but its main narrative has less to do with history than with the headaches of single fatherhood when your child is an idiot.
Sherman sets the story in motion by letting his classmate Penny (voiced by Burrell’s “Modern Family” castmate Ariel Winter) use the time machine, known as the WABAC, despite Peabody’s express instructions not to. In short order, Penny gets stuck in Egypt, where she is betrothed to the boy king Tutankhamun (Zach Callison), forcing Peabody and Sherman to rescue her. A subplot about the dangers of disrupting the space-time continuum only muddies the narrative and will upset even the most open-minded aficionado of cinematic time-travel conventions.
The question, then, is: Who is this movie for? Certainly not baby boomers who grew up with the series, and who probably only came to fully grasp its wordplay and wit when they were adults. Their teeth will likely be set on edge by the aggressively lowbrow nature of the script.
But what strange child cares about jokes referencing the 1999 film “Runaway Bride” or Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky? That’s right, Mom and Dad, the 42nd president pops up here to remind your child about that 1990s sex scandal. The off-color allusion is the only time the film goes quite this far, but it’s emblematic of the film’s inability to strike the right tone. Good luck explaining it on the way home.
Then again, you might not have to. If there are as few laughs as there were at the screening I sat through, that nasty little innuendo might fly right over Junior’s head.
In that sense at least, “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” does resemble the original cartoon, which always packed more gags into it than any child could be expected to understand. The difference is that with “Peabody’s Improbable History,” you had to grow up to get all of the humor, which ran from silly puns to more slyly sophisticated — if family-friendly — double entendres.
With “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” you’ll need not only your own WABAC machine, but also a shower.
PG. At area theaters. Contains mild action and rude humor. 82 minutes.