Some of my favorite cartoons in my youth (and still today) were the different incarnations of Rocky & Bullwinkle, not only for the semi-serialized, semi-sketch show aspect, but also for the witty segments featuring the bespectacled pair of Mr. Peabody and his adopted son, Sherman. Few cartoons before or since have managed to mix historical trivia with comedy so swiftly, and DreamWorks Animation certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows ten or twelve thousand times when they announced a feature-length adventure for the duo. But I couldn’t be more pleased that my year-long worries were for naught, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a mostly successful journey through time, space, and a encyclopedia of puns, all without the force-fed nostalgia that some of these throwback adaptations have been stewing in.
The most important question coming into this movie, and the only one that tethers it to what Giant Freakin’ Robot promotes, is: Does the WABAC Machine play as big a character as anyone else? The answer is yes, and then some. In fact, there is probably more time traveling in the film than anything else, as the plot takes little time in zipping around history, growing slightly more convoluted with each trip, but never enough to confuse even the youngest of children. I feel comfortable calling this the grade-school edition of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, only with much higher stakes. (And “higher” doesn’t work as a stoner reference in this one, though there is a quasi-masturbation joke later in the film that caused me to snort in the darkness of the theater.)
Ty Burrell is often brilliant as Mr. Peabody, who is not only a certified genius but is masterfully proficient in any task set before him. The Neighbors‘ Max Charles is even better as the well-meaning but unassertive Sherman, who takes a beating in this film for living in the dog-shaped shadow of his father. Peabody is wordily domineering enough to squash any attempt for Sherman to grow a backbone, and this aggression comes out in his school cafeteria, as he reacts wildly to the harsh bullying of Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), which lands him in troubled waters.
The story begins at a fancy dinner Mr. Peabody has planned to win over Penny’s parents, expertly voiced by Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann, as well as Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), a social worker who is extremely biased against a boy being raised by a dog. (We do get to see the adoption process, which occurs after Mr. Peabody finds an infant Sherman in a cardboard box abandoned in an alley, all of which was pretty heavy for a modern-day PG animation.) Despite strict instructions not to show Penny the WABAC, Sherman is once again bullied into doing the wrong thing. This kicks off a back-and-forth trip between action-packed world events and the emotional anchor of a father’s love for his son being threatened by a prejudiced bigot. The parallels between this and current-day civil rights issues are easy to read, and make me all the more relieved that director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright didn’t decide to try and save Martin Luther King, Jr. in one of their escapades. I say that with sarcasm, but it’s better to find the heavy stuff rather than have it heaped onto you.
And the areas where Mr. Peabody & Sherman lagged for me were those emotional moments, such as when Penny overcomes her dislike for Sherman and begins telling him to believe in himself, or the father/son issues that come up more as it goes on. Taken on their own merit, however, these were indeed smart ways to hook a heart onto the story without fabricating anything unfamiliar to these beloved characters.
In any case, those bits were few and far between compared to the massive set pieces crafted for all the time-traveling shenanigans. The expository setup in the beginning takes an early cake-and-guillotine-filled trip to France in 1793, but it isn’t until Sherman and Penny head into Egypt that the fun really starts. Each trip back in time generally happens the same way, though each is refreshing, as the referential jokes fly as fast as the large-scale mayhem that ensues. We meet King Tut (Zach Callison) in Egypt, Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) and Mona Lisa (Lake Bell) in Italy, Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) just before the Trojan War, and there’s still room for several more settings and legends of the past. Plus, audiences get to zip through the wormholes of time, bounce around inside the massive Trojan horse, fly around in the very first airplane concept, and more. It’s one of the rare movies where I regretted not opting for 3D, as a lot of attention went into the effects-heavy sequences when it seemed like everything on the screen was in motion.
All the more satisfying about this pic is that, for every easy or pandering joke, there are two intelligent quips, a silly pun, and a surreal joke that I’m pretty sure no one under the age of 10 will get. When it’s corny, it’s winking at you, and when it delivers the genius, it draws no attention. There are great moments with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but Bill Clinton got the biggest laugh out of me. And a running gag about da Vinci’s handmade child is one of the more darkly unique jokes that a children’s animation has gone for. Plus, the focus on the past allows for most of the pop culture references to go completely groan-free.
Though it’s only March, this may very well be one of the most surprising trips to the theater that I’ll have this year, as my expectations of a colorful cash grab were eclipsed by a film that took for granted neither the intelligence of its audience nor the limitations of the medium. While it may not go down in history as the best that animation has to offer, I’m willing to bet it remains just as rewatchable as Bullwinkle & Friends, and about 1492 times more watchable than the feature version of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle.