Despite my adoration for many things Disney, all kinds of different cartoons were on display to my viewing eyes in the early 1980’s. Early Sunday mornings were one of those times where I was introduced to the works of Mr Jay Ward. Jay’s bag-of-tricks was simple animation, but containing stories with a few extra gags, and acerbic wit.
His most famous work is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends. Each half-hour segment would not only contain segments regarding the famous “Moose and Squirrel,” but several other vignettes. These would include the likes of Fractured Fairy-Tales, Dudley Do-Right, Bullwinkle’s Corner, Mr Know-It-All, and Mr Peabody’s Improbable History.
During the 1990’s, an epidemic swept through Hollywood, in which studios suddenly felt they could make plenty of money, turning old cartoons into full-length features (most of them live-action). Unfortunately, Jay Ward and live-action films equaled box-office poison. The track records for 1999’s live-action Dudley Do-Right and 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle pretty much speak for themselves: noone went to see them, and you can find them for around $3 at most used DVD stores.
Of all the different segments left from the Bullwinkle show to be made into features, that just left Fractured Fairy Tales, and Mr Peabody’s Improbable History. Though given Dreamworks SKG’s Shrek films were pretty much the 21st Century’s rendition of Fractured, that just left the segments regarding Mr Peabody. Almost 55 years after the characters were introduced, Mr Peabody and his “pet boy” Sherman, have made it to the big screen (in animated form, no-less).
For those of you who weren’t raised on Jay Ward’s shows, Mr Peabody’s Improbably History followed the adventures of the world’s smartest dog, and his “pet boy” Sherman. Using Peabody’s Wayback machine, the two would travel throughout history, visiting all sorts of famous historical (and a few literary) figures. They assisted Robin Hood’s merry men when the famed rogue got amnesia, helped William Tell when he broke his glasses, and helped the famed painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler complete the famed portrait of his Mother (who was a big fan of playing ‘cowboys and indians’). They’ve also popped up in numerous time-travel gags, including an episode of The Simpsons.
Of course, when it comes to the feature film naturally, some creative liberties were bound to take place.
At the start, Mr Peabody (Ty Burrell) is very much unlike other dogs, and at a young age, puts his considerable brain power to bettering himself, and mankind. However, upon finding an abandoned baby, Peabody takes it upon himself to adopt the boy, and raise him as his own.
Though unknown to the rest of the world, Peabody was also able to perfect time-travel. For much of their lives together, Peabody and Sherman (Max Charles) have used the WABAC machine to traverse across time-and-space, giving Sherman a first-person look at what has come before.
Needless to say, Sherman is quite well-versed in history at a young age, and quickly ends up impressing his History teacher on the first day of school. However, when he ends up (unknowingly) showing up a little girl named Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter), she provokes him, leading to a serious altercation. This then leads to a Social Worker named Ms Grunion (Alison Janney) “threatening” Mr Peabody to have Sherman taken away from him.
Peabody then invites Penny and her parents over for a reconciliation meeting. It is during this time that Sherman ends up letting slip about the WABAC to Penny, and…well, let’s just say that in a film involving time-travel, stuff happens.
Any former cartoon brought into the digital world is bound to be filled with bells and whistles, and that’s what is on display here. The Wabac has been transformed into a “futuristic orb,” with floating, 3-D digital touchpads, and more. The art stylings of the environments do evoke the simplicity almost reminiscent to Dreamworks’ Madagascar films, but not pushed quite as far. The characters definitely put me in mind of those from the old animated shows, and even the loose-limbed way they made Sherman walk was fun (I think because I also have exaggeratedly walked like he did when I was little).
Unlike the show, which mainly focused on Sherman tagging along on Mr Peabody’s adventures, the characterizations here are made out to be moreso a father-and-son film. As well, given that Peabody is one of the smartest beings on the planet, it seems that sending his son out into the world is not something he has been altogether prepared for, which leads to much of the conflict in the film.
As seen in the previews, there’s a rather quickly shoe-horned young-love plot between Sherman and Penny, leading to one of those ‘animosity equals attraction’ scenarios we’ve seen in many films before. Penny is probably going to be one of those ‘love her/hate her’ characters to those watching the film. At times she can be quite nasty, but others she can be quite appealing. The inclusion of Penny in the time-travel adventures is a little awkward at times, and it feels like some of these moments would have benefited from a gradual transition. Then again, the running time of the film clocks in at almost exactly one hour and thirty minutes.
One area some may be surprised at, is a few times, the story gets a little darker than one would believe. I found myself surprised that the film would go to the places it did, but it definitely helped advance some of the characters at times.
The film also serves to almost be a statement on certain family set-ups. As some saw symbolism in parts of Disney’s Frozen, it feels like one can find them here in Peabody and Sherman. While most of the people that Mr Peabody knows have no problems with a dog raising a boy, Ms Grunion seems moreso out to prove some form of personal agenda regarding how she feels Sherman is being raised. I think that theme of the film being “it’s not ‘what’ you are, but ‘who’ you are” was a great way to go, and will help those see it as more than just a slapstick comedy.
As an aficionado of the show, I was pleasantly surprised that several key moments in the film mirror or callback to the introductory episode of Peabody’s Improbable History, but with some modern-day embellishments. However, it was less intrusive than say, the mention of “a Who-Phone” in Horton Hears a Who. As well, Peabody is not without his often “lame” puns about history.