"As a youth I was just an average genius — the puppy prodigy, they called me," Mr. Peabody recalled in the very first episode of Rocky and His Friends, the kid's show for adults that was later known as Rocky & Bullwinkle and The Bullwinkle Show. "Got my degree at Harvard when I was three — wagna cum laude." He served in the State Department ("I speak eight languages fluently— all at once") and did "a few research projects for the government," including creating the Apollo space program. "Then I dabbled in the stock market, where I was known as The Woof of Wall Street."
The lines ring as saucy and fresh as they did when Bill Scott, the show's head writer, voiced them in November 1959. A recurring segment in the Cold War's cleverest cartoon show, "Peabody's Improbable History" sent the brilliant beagle and his boy Sherman — a cheerful, slightly dim kid of seven, voiced by the 44-year-old Walter Tetley — on the WABAC machine to antic antique encounters with characters that spanned all of history, from the first caveman to Nero and Hippocrates, through the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, up to such early 20th-century stalwarts as (if we can believe our Wikipedia) Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller.
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Why stretch a five-minute segment from a show that ended 50 years ago into an animated feature? You might as well ask: Why not? That what-the-heck attitude — the blend of modesty and chutzpah that seized director Rob Minkoff and writer Craig Wright — is the salient quality of the 3-D Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which based on the characters and format that the cartoonist Ted Key (of Hazel fame) created for Rocky producer Jay Ward. Other DreamWorks features — Monsters vs. Aliens, Megamind, Rise of the Guardians and The Croods — put the fate of the world in play. This one has nothing more at stake than whether Peabody and Sherman will get back home in time to convince a grouchy social worker that they should be together. Well, that — and mending a rip in the space-time continuum.
It helps Mr. Peabody and Sherman that the bar for longform movies inspired by the Ward show is lower than the IQ of Bullwinkle J. Moose. The 1992 Boris and Natasha, with Dave Thomas and Sally Kellerman as the Pottsylvania spies pursuing our intrepid squirrel; the 1999 Dudley Do-Right, starring Brendan Fraser as Ward's righteous, clueless Mountie; and the 2000 The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, imprisoning Jason Alexander and Rene Russo in the Boris and Natasha roles — all were minor embarrassments, instantly forgotten. At least Mr. Peabody & Sherman fits snugly in the canon.
Minkoff, who co-directed The Lion King, has fiddled little with the character design. Peabody now has blue eyes, and spends more time on two legs than on four, but retains the pooch's professorial glasses and bow tie; Sherman has the familiar matching specs and shock of orange hair. Ty Burrell (Phil on Modern Family) nicely judges the Peabody voice, which is just as pedantic as Scott's but a shade warmer, and Max Charles — an actual child — does right by Sherman's squeaky falsetto.
Wright, from TV (Six Feet Under, Lost, The United States of Tara), has replaced a few of the old gags — "wagna cum laude" is now "valedogtorian" — and provides many action scenes of the Indiana Jones variety. Peabody and Sherman fight the Trojan war and, to escape Robespierre during the French Revolution, luge through the Paris sewers. Sherman does battle with King Tut in ancient Egypt (where Peabody, a shameless punner, remarks, "I'm just an old Giza") and takes a spin on Leonardo Da Vinci's 16th-century flying machine.
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The spur for most of these adventures is Sherman's first-grade classmate Peggy Peterson (voiced by Ariel Winter, Burrell's Modern Family daughter Alex). An infant Heather in immediate need of counseling and discipline, Peggy taunts and bullies Sherman about his home life, throwing his lunchtime sandwich on the floor and demanding he eat it, like a dog. Infuriated, the boy bites her — all right, like a dog — and the dominatrix posing as a social worker (Alison Janney) begins proceedings to separate the human Sherman from his canine keeper. The whole story takes place in a day or two, give or take a few millennia on WABAC visits, as Peabody charms Peggy's parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) with his Einstein on the Beach cocktails and expertise in chiropracty, and the dreadful Penny leads Sherman on visits to the distant, mildly amusing past. The girl is ultimately domesticated, but does she ever apologize for humiliating Sherman? She does not.
Peggy gets a mulligan for being a blond, budding sociopath, but Peabody must be humanized, forced into the one emotion he couldn't express — well, any emotion. A kindly animal with a cold nose, the TV Peabody insisted that Sherman "Never call me 'Dad'"; this was a show about learning, but no hugging. In a movie that rewards affection over intelligence, you know that when, halfway through, Sherman says, "I love you, Mr. Peabody," and Peabody replies, "I have a deep regard for you as well, Sherman," the dialogue will eventually be repeated with the characters reversed.
Thus does an old comedy segment that made fun of nearly a hundred historical characters — and assumed that its audience would know enough about Stephen Decatur, Emily Roebling and Oda Nobunaga to share in the revisionist fun — become a parable of adoptive parenting, cross-species style. With more sentiment and splash than the original's sharp wit, Mr. Peabody & Sherman ends up teaching the same lesson as "Peabody's Improbable History": every dog should have a boy.