I always enjoyed the edgy humor of the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, even though much of its cold war-inspired humor was way over my head. Like many of its contemporary animated shows, Rocky & Bullwinkle had other characters that would star in their own adventures, usually neat, self-container 5-10 minute stories, and most engaging among those were the peculiar time-traveling journeys of über-smart dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted human son Sherman. Yes, “dog adopts boy”.
The 2000 live-action Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, with Rene Russo as Russian vamp Natasha and Jason Alexander as her dim Soviet sidekick Boris, however, was horrible. Yikes. Well worth avoiding.
The Dreamworks update of the witty dog and his boy story Mr. Peabody & Sherman, however, retains the wackiness and smarts of the original cartoon and is a delight throughout, a movie that gives the kids lots of kinetic visuals and sight gags to enjoy while simultaneously entertaining us adults with its puns and subtle references to many, many other films.
Directed by Rob Minkoff, the dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a savant with the “genius of Einstein, the wit of Oscar Wilde, the daring of Indiana Jones, the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes, the sartorial style of James Bond and the culinary skills of Mario Batali”. But his greatest challenge, one that all parents know well, is being a good parent.
Pushing the envelope and learning to rebel and be less cooperative is his legally adopted son Sherman (voiced by Max Charles), who as the film opens is heading to school for the first time. Since his canine Dad is so famous, it doesn’t take long for the Heathers-inspired mean girl Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter) to taunt him about being a cooperative puppy, not a boy at all. They tussle in the school cafeteria, a scene that might be slightly too intense for the very youngest viewers, and out of sheer frustration, Sherman bites her.
That propels the story forward pell-mell, with Penny’s family invited over for a gourmet meal hosted by Mr. Peabody in an attempt to calm things down between the two children. Penny and Sherman, of course, are destined to become close friends, but not before they tap into the family WABAC time machine without permission. I mean, everyone has a time machine in the penthouse, right?
Through adventures in France during the revolution (Marie Antoinette sure likes her cake!), Egypt where we learn that it’s not such a blessing to be betrothed to child pharaoh King Tut, the Renaissance (Mona Lisa? She wasn’t smiling because Leonardo was a genius painter but just not good at telling jokes) and even Troy on the verge of the Trojan War (inside that big wooden horse? Stinky. The warriors weren’t so good at bathing) and back into a muddled present.
The temporal paradoxes are piling up and soon famous people from throughout time are on New York city streets trying to help avoid a disaster, including Marie Antoinette (voice of Lauri Fraser), King Tut (voice of Zach Callison), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), Mona Lisa (Lake Bell), Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton), Odysseus (Tom McGrath) and even Albert Einstein (a wonderful cameo from Mel Brooks), with Jess Hamell giving us the voices of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Bill Clinton.
Just as importantly, there are deeper themes in the film too, including most notably the father/son relationship as a child starts to move into their own identity, with the inevitable conflict that produces. There are also some thoughtfully addressed issues surrounding adoption and, something I really liked, Penny’s quite likable parents. They enjoyed each other’s company, dancing and hugging without any snark or sarcasm. What’s striking is how uncommon that is to see in the modern cinema.
I really enjoyed this film a lot and my 10yo daughter and her friend both found it engaging and amusing, with it holding their attention for the short 92min running time. With lively music by Danny Elfman and a lovely montage to the John Lennon ballad “Beautiful Boy”, the entire experience was a delight. Recommended.