Mr. Peabody & Sherman
"The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," "Dudley Do-Right," and, blech!, "Boris and Natasha: The Movie": After a two-decade run of putting the smartly satiric and, for a lot of us, eternally endearing characters from "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show," into simple-minded big-screen time-wasters, Hollywood finally has treated a couple of them right.
With "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," a topsy-turvy tale about a dog and his boy, the DreamWorks animation team evinces the anarchic wit that eluded all of their, bizarrely, live-action-obsessed predecessors. The studio, whose reputation is based on genre-bending successes like "Shrek" and "Kung Fu Panda" has given the equally unconventional Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), a canine polymath, and Sherman (Max Charles), his inquisitive adopted son, the creative respect they deserve. It is a shame that a certain moose and squirrel from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, were not as fortunate.
As with their hand-drawn 2-D incarnations from half a century ago, the now digitally-derived Mr. Peabody and Sherman have a tight bond, one that, for a few extra bucks, moviegoers can unnecessarily see in a third dimension. Working at feature length (approximately 90 minutes for any cell-phone-addicted adults in desperate need of an inner child), director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright take the opportunity to flesh out this relationship more thoroughly, relentlessly ruminating on the nature of fatherly love in the hope of jerking a bucket of tears from our eyes. When it comes to such efforts, DreamWorks has not quite developed the Pixar touch, but an expository montage of Mr. Peabody discovering the abandoned Sherman in a baby basket and nurturing him to middle childhood, all set to John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)," effectively spins its manipulative magic.
The anthropomorphised and bespectacled Mr. Peabody is a strange sight these days for a reason far deeper than his appearance: Namely, he is an unabashed know-it-all and pun-meister, whose intelligence is meant to elicit joy rather than ridicule. It is particularly gratifying to see him in a children's movie pontificating on science, mathematics, history, cooking, art, and other humanizing interests for the benefit of Sherman, and perhaps the audience, too. As was the case on the boob tube from 1959-1964, Wright once again makes Mr. Peabody a full-throated advocate of all things culturally elevating, which is more than enough justification to cheer his return.
Mr. Peabody is also an alternately fantastic and diabolical inventor (among his inventing credits: Auto-Tune!). His most remarkable gizmo is the WABAC (pronounced "wayback") machine, a time-traveling device that allows him to teach Sherman about history firsthand. And, as opposed to the ever rule-bound "Star Trek" universe, Mr. Peabody never frets about whether his temporal sojourns are messing with historical timelines; in fact, he and Sherman even nonchalantly help to instigate the French Revolution's Reign of Terror by accepting some cake from a surprisingly hospitable Marie Antoinette. Tragically, an accompanying statement by the oblivious queen is interpreted in the worst possible way.
Other stops on the WABAC machine's journey through time and space include ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy, as well as a mythological detour to Troy, where Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) is super psyched to roll his giant wooden horse into the besieged city and forever mark its inhabitants as literature's greatest dupes. Robespierre (Guillaume Aretos), King Tutankhamun (Zach Callison), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), and a slew of other historical figures also pop up over the course of the film, each caricatured to a point that keeps learning and fun in some sort of relative balance.
Avoiding decapitation in 18th-century France and the other potential pitfalls of hopping back and forth across the millennia are not all that imperils Mr. Peabody and Sherman. They must also contend with an officious child-services baddie Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), who does not believe it is appropriate for a dog, irrespective of his IQ score, to raise a human being. Ms. Grunion's scorn for Mr. Peabody's parenting skills first ignites after Sherman bites his classmate and budding crush Penny (Ariel Winter), a preppy girl who publicly bullied him in the school cafeteria. To appease Penny's parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann), Mr. Peabody prepares them a ridiculously complicated home-cooked meal, which gives Sherman and Penny the plot-accelerating opportunity to use the WABAC machine without permission.
If "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a hit, DreamWorks will be sitting pretty, since the potential to sequelize the duo's adventures is as limitless as history itself. As of right now, this is a welcome thought.