I'm not going to go into this review pretending that I'm an expert on the original show-within-a-show, Peabody's Improbable History, that served as the basis for Dreamworks Animation's latest film. I have seen bits and pieces of the Rocky and Bullwinkle companion piece over the years and vaguely remember enjoying the rather dry sense of wit they contained, but that's about it.
So, looking at the new and updated Mr. Peabody & Sherman flick, the question I asked myself was less about how faithful or good it was compared to its source material, but how it stands on its own. And the answer to that can be summed up in one of several words, be it serviceable, adequate, passable, and so on. I don't think this is an outright bad movie, but it's overall almost completely unremarkable and fleeting in whatever impact it might be trying to have.
The movie starts out with a brief overview of the life of Mr. Peabody (Voiced by Modern Family's Ty Burrell), an unusually articulate and super-intelligent dog who, upon failing to find an owner as a pup (One kid complains that he's too sarcastic for a dog), devotes his life to bettering the world as a scholar, inventor, and overall jack-of-all-trades. It's soon also established that he adopts an abandoned human boy named Sherman (Max Charles), who he sometimes educates on history in a special hands-on style by use of his custom time machine, the WABAC.
Sherman runs into trouble on his first day of school when he ends up biting his classmate Penny (Ariel Winter) after a bout of bullying from her due to his uncommon canine upbringing. To try and set things right, Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) for a dinner discussion, but it doesn't take long for Sherman and Penny's combined rambunctiousness to lead to them sneaking into and misusing the WABAC, setting off a chain of madcap events in ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy, and the Trojan War, quickly dragging Peabody into the conundrum with them as well.
This movie, to sum it up as best as I can, lacks a good focus. Far too much of the story is just dedicated to moving on from time period to time period and dealing with whatever conflict each one brings in an episodic manner, and I personally felt that not enough of it was spent developing the father-son relationship between the titular duo, which I feel was a big missed opportunity. The movie does do a good job of making them both likable (The same can't be said for Penny, whose constant rebelliousness and failure to cooperate with either of them soon becomes grating), and as far as I know, the original show never delved into their actual history and love for each other at all, so while I appreciate the fact that this aspect was in the movie at all, it really should have been pushed harder, because as it stands, the movie kind of lacks a genuine heart.
Other wasted aspects involve the primary villain, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), who the movie introduces in the first 15 minutes, but completely forgets about until the last act. Her disposition against the idea of a dog raising a human has potential, but because of her lack of screentime, neither it nor the character feel fleshed out enough. The numerous historical figures, while expressive and well-voiced by the likes of Patrick Warburton and Stanley Tucci, don't fare much better, and mostly feel one-note.
As for how the actual jokes fare, I chuckled off and on throughout the film, but can't recall any really big laughs. Most of it is inoffensive and harmless stuff that kids will like more than adults, though the film's most notable "Here's one for the adults!"-type joke, which is delivered by Peabody during the setup for the third act and I won't actually spoil, did come off as more than a bit inappropriate. I'm hoping there won't be many kids asking their parents why they laughed at such a supposedly innocuous line.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman will at least provide kids with a good time, but I doubt even the target audience will be dying to see this movie again or buy it upon its home release. I might also be going a little rough on this movie because I personally feel that Dreamworks has made some truly spectacular CG-animated films within the past couple of years, namely the adventurous How to Train Your Dragon, both funny and action-packed Kung Fu Panda films, and the genuinely enchanting and mature Rise of the Guardians. This falls more in the Turbo area of quality. It doesn't help that the much funnier and more visually impressive The Lego Movie is still playing in most theaters. Here's to hoping that How to Train Your Dragon 2 will deliver the goods come June, because for me, this didn't cut it.