“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is a real triumph, not only because it’s a wonderfully rendered animated film that successfully employs the process of 3D, but also because it truly embodies the spirit of a family film, in which the adults are allowed to have just as much fun as the kids. It tells a story that’s equally as heartwarming as it is funny, it includes several impeccable paced and choreographed action sequences, and when it delves into the realm of pseudo-science fiction, most prominently during the final act, it’s handled in such a way that we in the audience feel neither patronized nor hopelessly confused. We’re allowed to simply accept it as fantasy. The film is a showcase of the best kind of escapist entertainment, where no one’s intelligence is insulted and everyone feels included.
Derived from the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” one of the film’s two central characters is, of course, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), a talking white dog who wears glasses and wears a little red bowtie. He is arguably the smartest living being who has ever been and ever will be, given his mastery of an impossibly large number of disciplines. He can, for example, play every single musical instrument on the planet with ease. In addition, he’s a nobel laureate, a gourmet chef, an Olympic gold medalist, a skilled hypnotist, and a scientist. He’s even a trendsetter, having introduced the fistbump, the Auto-Tune vocal effect, and Zumba. Most important to the story, he’s a historian and an inventor, both of which factored into his creation of a time machine dubbed the WABAC, which looks like a giant red ball.
The other central character is Mr. Peabody’s seven-year-old son, a human boy named Sherman (voiced by Max Charles), who was legally adopted as a newborn after being rescued from abandonment in a back alley. The relationship between father and son, despite being interspecies and rather formal (Mr. Peabody will not allow himself to be called “Dad”), is surprisingly touching. In one regard, it’s also surprising; we fully expect Mr. Peabody to eventually learn that children cannot grow if they’re overprotected, but we don’t expect Sherman to learn that parents – the decent ones, at any rate – set strict rules because they love their children and don’t want to see them get hurt. One of the film’s greatest achievements is the way the maturity of this mutual understanding is seamlessly interwoven with the sense of humor, itself a mix between clever verbal witticisms and well-timed cartoon slapstick.
The main plot is kick started when Sherman, on his first day of school, gets into a fight at school with a snide blonde girl named Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter) and ends up biting her. Not only does this incur the wrath of Penny’s parents (voiced by Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert), it also calls into question Mr. Peabody’s worth as a parent. The school counselor, Mrs. Grunion (voiced by Allison Janney), is convinced that a boy simply cannot be raised by a dog and makes it her mission to get Sherman out of Mr. Peabody’s custody. Hoping to diffuse the situation, Mr. Peabody invites Penny, her parents, and Mrs. Grunion over to his apartment for dinner. But wouldn’t you know it, Sherman breaks his father’s rule and shows Penny the WABAC machine, unwittingly sending her back in time. Thus begins a journey to return to the present, Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny travelling through Ancient Egypt, Italy at the time of Leonardo da Vinci, and Ancient Greece at the start of the Trojan War.
There are scenes of comedy that are truly inspired. Consider a sequence in which, hoping to rescue Penny from a barbaric Egyptian ritual, Mr. Peabody and Sherman hide in the mouth of a gigantic statue of Anubis; the scene is hilarious not merely because of what Mr. Peabody says to the superstitious Egyptians below, but also because of the way the Egyptians react, including one with a noticeably Jewish accent. Also consider a scene inside the Trojan Horse, where the testosterone-pumped warrior Agamemnon (voiced by Patrick Warburton) explains that even the greatest Greeks all had parental issues; “Don’t even get me started on Oedipus!” he exclaims. And then there’s the moment when we finally discover how da Vinci (voiced by Stanley Tucci) managed to get the Mona Lisa to smile for her portrait.
Those familiar with the original cartoon shorts will immediately pick up on Mr. Peabody’s uncanny ability to generate historically-based puns, which aren’t corny so much as clever. That’s what makes them so funny. Take the time to ponder his take on the beheading of Marie Antoinette: “She can have her cake and eat it, too!” The shorts may not adequately prepare audiences for the scientific mumbo jumbo about wormholes and rips in the space-time continuum, which factor heavily during the final scenes, but that’s okay; the film, as is the case with all good adaptations of someone else’s material, is intended to stand on its own. And besides, it’s not as if we’re supposed to take the scientific part of it all that seriously. We’re only supposed to have fun looking at it. Watching “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” fun is exactly what I had.