They didn’t ruin Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
They could have. It’s not like anyone under, oh say, 50 remembers the original Jay Ward television cartoons that aired in the 1960s and lived again through 1970s reruns, or even would have cared if this feature film adaptation from Lion King director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright had re-branded the characters to fit comfortably within the low-standards niche of contemporary children’s entertainment. It didn’t have to be smart or funny to make its buck. But surprise – it’s kind of both. To a point.
Genius canine Mr. Peabody (the voice of Ty Burrell) adopts foundling Sherman (Max Charles) as his own and sets about homeschooling the kid in the best possible way. Peabody is, after all, a scientist, inventor, extremely successful businessman and gourmet chef. He’s also built the WABAC machine that allows him to teach Sherman world history by traveling back in time to historic events.
In the context of the vintage TV cartoons, no other through-line was needed to justify spending time with these witty and weirdly educational characters. But this is an animated family film in 2014 and modern reasoning requires an affirmation of that family above all else, hence the strange, overlaid plot involving the persecution by outside forces of this non-traditional parent/child arrangement. An incident involving a mean girl (Ariel Winter) warrants a visit from her clueless, hovering parents (Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann) and a cruel Child Services bureaucrat (Allison Janney) who wants nothing more than to take Sherman away. What will remedy this crash course with special warm fuzzies? Nothing, of course, but the WABAC machine helps.
Hurtling into and out of history, meeting Albert Einstein (Mel Brooks), Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) and an idiotic Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton, is the best defense and distraction, as are the frequently clever dialogue and inventive remixing of historical events, which don't shy away from jokes about those events, famous figures of their moment, or even a certain 1970s avant-garde opera. Some of it will fly over a lot of parents’ heads, much less those of the target grade-school audience.
Eventually, it all comes back down to Earth, the business of mandatory sentimentality and the thesis that happiness necessarily involves hugging a warm puppy. Because what if smart and funny actually isn’t enough? What if real life parents need a 3D cartoon to remind them that they love their own children? What if they’d just ignored all that stuff and kept on making witty puns about 18th century France? We’ll never know, at least not until a sequel comes along. Until then the moral of the story is that you’ll never go broke hedging your bets, even if you’re the smartest dog in the world.