Mr. Peabody and Sherman arrives as huge surprise: looking for all the world like another cynical studio rehash and ending up as… well, as a cynical studio rehash, but one that abounds with real affection for its subject. The time-traveling dog and his adopted human son originally appeared on the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon, and though well-liked, no one seemed to be clamoring for a big-screen version of them. The filmmakers wisely take nothing for granted, and find the sweet spot between nostalgic indulgence for the die-hard fans and a funny story fully capable of standing on its own.
Perhaps most importantly, they resolutely refuse to update their characters for a too-hip 21st Century. So Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) remains as calm and self-assured as he always did, while his boy (voiced by Max Charles) is the same eager-beaver dope we remember from the old cartoons. Being a genius dog carries plenty of perks, including the invention of a time machine to let the two of them go back and experience history as it happens. The old shorts took them from one red-letter date to another, helping the course of civilization stay on track before departing in a cloud of carefully crafted puns. The movie shares that ramshackle structure, though it provides a little more dramatic impetus when one of Sherman’s bratty classmates (voiced by Ariel Winter) gets stuck in ancient Egypt.
Frankly, they could have left things at that and still done all right for themselves, thanks to a very funny script full of equal parts intellectual sucker punches and plain old-fashioned pratfalls. Their various hijinks are fairly spot-on as far as evoking the old cartoons, helped by some funny supporting voices such as Stanley Tucci playing Leonardo Da Vinci and Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon. Though this particular dog sports a fair bit of shag, the jokes ensure we stay entertained, while the high quality animation allows the physical mayhem plenty of room to stretch.
Even the most optimistic patron probably couldn’t have hoped for anything more, which is why Mr. Peabody and Sherman outdoes itself by going to another level. It starts with all the questions the show never got into, like why a genius dog would adopt a boy in the first place and how their decidedly odd relationship works. The movie version will happily exploit such undeveloped territory, but in the name of making for good storytelling rather than an excuse to put their own spin on the property. Director Rob Minkoff relies a little too much on the misunderstood outsider routine to get going, but once he hits his stride, the film becomes a lovely tribute to the virtues of parenting. Peabody is devoted to his boy as only a good father can be, exercising the right amount of discipline and understanding to help prep Sherman for the travails of life. He springs into action most forcefully when the threat of losing Sherman looms, and his detached affection hides a deep-set love that the filmmakers bring out in surprisingly touching ways.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman also earns big points for lionizing intelligence as a virtue. Genius dogs are all well and good, but we get a front-row seat to see how handy a little knowledge can be: from an ability to figure out the trajectory of a flying object to the kind of silly historical tidbits that the old show used to thrive on. The late Roger Ebert said that nothing hooks us in to a movie more than showing a smart character being smart. You won’t see smart look quite as cool as it does here.
Coat that with a lot of clever jokes and some silly characters, and Mr. Peabody and Sherman can’t help but soar. The marketing campaign spoke to an anemic business as usual approach, and I’m sure Jay Ward fans were horrified at the prospect. (I was one of them.) As our hero would remind us, however, there’s no need to panic. The careful application of effort and heart can see your way through just about anything, including a studio process designed to pound the joy out of every project that goes through it. Mr. Peabody and Sherman won’t score much in the originality department, but everything else? Aces across the board.