The only story more touching than that of a boy and his dog is that of a dog and his boy. In that respect MR. PEABODY AND SHERMAN has outdone the original seven-minute cartoon that was part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle universe that enthralled millions of us first as children and then as adults. What was so great about those cartoons, and about the feature film, is that the humor, while perfectly enjoyable for the kiddie set, was more directly aimed at adults.† Some of us couldnít wait to grow up, if only to finally get the rest of the jokes. The premise each episode was that Mr. Peabody would take
With only seven minutes to work with, the backstory of how Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell), a dog with a Harvard degree, came to adopt his boy, the sweet but often befuddles Sherman (Max Charles). The film fills in that backstory by way of a puckish and poignant montage set to John Lennonís ďBeautiful BoyĒ, thereby using sweet but not saccharine song, and not wasting too much precious time on the specifics. The real story is of Shermanís first of school, and of his first encounter with a bully, Penny (Ariel Winter), a girl who does not like to be bested in history class, and of his first encounter with the sort of bigotry involved when a dog raises a boy. Itís all handled deftly, with a perfectly honed sense of the absurd balancing delicately with the more serious issues involved. Those include retaining custody of Sherman after the school bully pushes the boy to his limits, charming said bullyís parents with aerodynamic cocktails and world music, plus negotiating a black hole. Dog and children go galumphing through time, learning first-hand about Egyptian marriage customs, and the how Leonardo to Mona Lisa to smile. And thatís before the space-time continuum is threatened.
Fear not, though, the atrociously wonderful puns still abound, as does the lessons in history, physics, chemistry, and psychology that only a Nobel Prize-winning beagle can deliver. The writing bristles with wit and playfulness during a series of hair-raising, preposterously last-minute escapes, and wildly imaginative perils, including a race through the Paris sewers that should make us all glad that smell-o-vision never amounted to anything.†
Burrellís voice, while not of the same timbre as the original Peabody, Bill Scott, nonetheless has the same suave, self-assured erudition necessary for Peabodyís unflappable knowledge of what to do in any situation, be it escaping a mummyís tomb or mixing an aerodynamically compelling cocktail. Burrell also has a warmth, when necessary, that Scott was not called upon to supply.† The range of Burrellís voice, coupled with the subtlety of animation that makes Peabodyís big green eyes palpably emotional without overplaying it, makes this a Peabody that is more human than most of the people around him.† It makes the film not just fun, but that most elusive of things, a great comedy with just enough emotional resonance to give some substance to the tomfoolery.
The other characters are just as vivid, if not as complex, with Janney oozing condescending evil as Miss Grunion the zaftig social worker bent on separating dog and boy,, and Patrick Warburton, the essence of bone-headed testosterone as a bubbly and ebullient Achilles preparing to lay waste to Troy.
MR PEABODY AND SHERMAN is sharp, smart, and not afraid to embrace the silliness of its idiom, nor to use words of more than three syllables with impunity. The animation is just as clever, historically accurate, when necessary, and boldly anachronistic, also when necessary. Itís just so much fun that even drawing eyebrows on Mona Lisa, who following the fashion of her time, didnít have any, canít squelch the sheer joy of a childhood icon brought triumphantly into the 21st century.