Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is far and away the smartest dog in the world. I’m not just talking smart like Snoopy, or even smart like Stan the talking, blogging dog of Dog with a Blog. Mr. Peabody is a genius. He’s an inventor, a scholar, a scientist, and the founder and C.E.O. of Peabody Industries. For his contributions to the pursuit of knowledge, he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. That’s some dog. But perhaps his most notable achievement is his win in the historic court case for his right to adopt a human child. The judge decided that someone as accomplished as Mr. Peabody could surely be trusted with such a task and so the bespectacled beagle is awarded custody of Sherman (Max Charles), a red-haired, big-eyed infant orphan eager to learn and grow. They make a good pair and have for many years. Seeing as Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens with the boy as a seven-year-old, this intelligent canine has clearly discovered the secret to expanding dog lives. I wouldn’t put it past him.
These cartoon characters have been around since the late 1950s when they debuted on TV with Ted Key's Peabody’s Improbable History, part of Jay Ward’s Rocky and Bullwinkle. Their new feature length reboot comes courtesy of DreamWorks Animation, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) outfitting them with a bright primary color world full of soft and shiny CGI of appealing rubberiness. Now, as then, their story hinges on Mr. Peabody’s most amazing invention, one he keeps secret out of necessity. It’s a time machine. He uses it to teach Sherman about history by letting him observe it in action. They call it the WABAC Machine (say it out loud if you don’t get it). Since the rules of time travel movies dictate that time must be put in disarray, the better to send our protagonists lost in time desperate to fix mistakes, you know the first time you see the spinning red vehicle bleeping its way through wormholes that something will go wrong soon.
But you might not expect to see a film that takes the father/son relationship seriously, especially taking into consideration the canine factor. Sherman gets into a fight with a snooty girl at school (Ariel Winter) and, in a moment of frustration, bites her. In storms a towering social worker (Allison Janney), glaring at Mr. Peabody and sniffing that such behavior is to be expected letting a dog raise a child. It’s a fine stand-in for knee-jerk condemnation of unconventional family structures. Even better is the film’s insistence that getting to know people melts away prejudices. Why, that super-smart dog is not so different from us after all! Peabody invites the bitten girl and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for a dinner party in the hopes of smoothing the conflict and preventing the social worker from deciding to take Sherman away.
But, even before the first course, the kids end up sneaking into the WABAC and rocketing into the past. Told you that time machine would cause some trouble. What follows is a mashup of famous times and faces as the kids bounce into Ancient Egypt, running into King Tut (Zach Callison) before dashing away, desperate for Peabody’s help. So it’s two kids and a dog racing through time, interrupting an Egyptian wedding ceremony, Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) in the middle of painting Mona Lisa (Lake Bell), and Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) and his army huddled in a giant wooden horse. The movie moves at a fast, but never frantic, pace as it finds pleasantly elastic history. A mix of brisk caricature and actual interest in facts, the script by Craig Wright (with additional dialogue by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) finds amusing little details and gigglingly over-the-top accents at each stop. There’s an Egyptian who is way too excited about the mummification process. Mona Lisa is too tired from sitting around all day to smile. And I especially liked the portrayal of Odysseus as not exactly the sharpest guy around. I mean, it’ll take him long enough to get home, right?
In its brisk, colorful cartooniness, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is often funny. It leans heavily on gags and puns – when a mummy loses an arm, the dog quips, “That’s disarming” – with a welcome emphasis on clever silliness. And yet there is rubbery rigor in the time travel mechanics, enough to tickle my inner timeline nerdiness without leaping beyond the understanding of its target audience. It’s entertaining, but never taxing. Part of what makes it so comfortable are the warm and appealing voice performances, especially Burrell’s Peabody, quaint and inviting with a pinched ivory tower voice sparkling with a love of learning and of wordplay. He was never adopted as a puppy because he was too sarcastic. Aw. It’s fun to fly through history with him as a guide.
As with so many modern animated family films, through all the bouncy movement, sly references, and quick slapstick, everything hinges on the emotional state of the family. It is as if adults who go to these with children need reassurance that they’re doing okay. In this film, the father/son relationship is movingly developed, from an early montage of backstory set to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” to the key climactic moment that’s nothing more than a show of familial solidarity, the dénouement an exchange of fatherly “I love you.” It may be just a silly time travel comedy about a dog and his boy, but a father’s love for his son (and son for father) outlasting all the tribulations of all time is a lovely thought.