Bringing Peabody’s Improbable History - a TV cartoon classic that transcended limited animation with distinctive style, great writing and memorable performances - to the big screen had to have been daunting. How do you get the most out of big-budget CG but retain the charm, coy humor and character integrity of the Jay Ward classic (created by Ted Key)? Somehow they pulled it off, just like Peabody and Sherman might have, with a healthy respect for the past as well as the present.
This is an epic production, complete with huge crowd scenes and effects with the ambition of the recent Marvel movies. But eye-popping visuals are one thing, story is another. Mr. Peabody and Sherman also somehow manages to deliver the modern and the classic through good storytelling and a concerted effort to capture the original look and feel as much as a CG feature film can.
We meet Mr. Peabody on the big screen the same way we did on TV - as well as on the 1961 Golden Records "Rocky and His Friends" record album - in the midst of his yoga practice. Within the first few minutes of the film, I adjusted to Ty Burrell’s inspired, layered interpretation of Bill Scott's Peabody voice, which is deeply ingrained in me.
The film kicks into gear with what is, in effect, a complete, self-contained Improbable History-type adventure, set during the French Revolution with a cake-craving Marie Antoinette.
After Peabody and Sherman (voiced by Max Charles of ABC's excellent sitcom The Neighbors) return, the film’s core story starts. Sherman’s first-hand knowledge of history enables him to eagerly answer questions. His teacher proceeds to fail "Caring for Children 101" by using Sherman's little triumph to belittle Penny (Ariel Winter, who plays Burrell's middle daughter on Modern Family), who in turn bullies Sherman in that grand old prison exercise yard for students, the school cafeteria.
Enter Mrs. Grunion (Allison Janney), an imposing blend of Disney’s Queen of Hearts and The Alvin Show’s Mrs. Frumpington ("A-baby-baby-baby!"), the kind of person who gains influence through manipulation of a system that should be protecting people from her. When the ineffectual principal dares to remind her that Sherman was provoked, she bullies him the way Penny bullied Sherman. She continues to bully people every time she appears in the story, yet she can contort the system to support her - much like the loathsome Delores Umbrage in Harry Potter.
It’s interesting to note that, in this film, the villains are not the despots of history or witches in castles, but everyday people who abuse people and situations for their own egotistical gain. Peabody uses one of his expert skills (coincidentally used by TV's Hazel, also created by Ted Key), when he encounters Penny’s father (with the voice and the spot-on countenance of Stephen Colbert).
You wouldn't have a movie if those two precocious kids didn’t misuse the WABAC machine. The doorway to the machine is an affectionate tribute to the Jay Ward/UPA style, the machine itself is a red orb resembling the AMC logo, and when it whisks through the space-time continuum, one might expect the Tardis from Doctor Who to pass it from the other direction.
The episodic nature of time traveling from year to year has been problematic in past movies. Consider the 1964 animated feature Willie McBean and His Magic Machine, the first theatrical feature from Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass. It’s a tale about a little boy and a politically incorrect monkey traveling through time to stop a mad scientist from changing history. But after about a half hour, the problems of telling an episodic time-travel story became clear. The viewer can become restless within one era and want to get on to the next one.
In Mr. Peabody and Sherman, there are two strong story threads: the character arc of Sherman’s tormentor/crush Penny and the parent/child issues between a superbrain dog and his growing boy.
The visits to each time period are as brisk as the overall film. Each sequence - King Tut’s ancient Egypt, DaVinci’s Italy and Agamemnon's Troy - builds on the other. The Troy segment brings us Patrick Warburton with his dependably funny - and Kronk-ish - Agamemnon, whose catch phrase is sure to delight little boys and irritate their sisters.
Like the series - but in a more "PG" way - the film's humor sways from double entendre ("Sherman, don’t touch yourself!") to the silly (Einstein playing with a Rubik’s cube) to 21st century poop (characters spewing from the rear end of the Trojan Horse). There’s more than a touch of social and political jabs in the Ward tradition and lots of swift wordplay. Each adventure is also followed by a wince-inducing pun from Peabody. (My favorite was "Old Giza" ...maybe you had to be there.)
"Inside" references occur so fast it would take several viewings to catch them all. When Peabody is solving a problem, we see how his mind snaps into overdrive as blueprints appear over the images - but much too fast to see all the funny notations. A sinister character says, "There’s no turning back now" a la The Haunted Mansion. Characters sparkle and rise in the air like the Darling children in Peter Pan.
As to the look, both the Peabody and Sherman characters went through an almost endless parade of design changes until they resembled their 2-D counterparts in 3-D. Some details, such as the look of woodwork, are deliberately stylized, while costumes and architecture are downright breathtaking without compromising the overall design.
I do wish that two voice actors were cast for at least one role. In the original cartoon, the late Paul Frees played virtually every figure in history, so I might have booked a session with Corey Burton. And though June Foray was seldom, if ever, in a Peabody episode, she is such an icon of Jay Ward cartoons in general, it would have been nice to hear her somewhere in this film.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman is preceded by a short called Almost Home starring the voice of Steve Martin. It came as a bit of a surprise for two reasons: I first thought it was part of the Peabody movie itself, and I had heard that a Rocky and Bullwinkle short was going to be part of the program. Hopefully, the R&B short will be released with another Dreamworks film later this year.
Until now, you could count the outstanding 're-imaginings' of baby boomer favorites on the fingers of one hand. With Mr. Peabody and Sherman, you finally start counting on the other hand.