That unflappable, time-traveling, genius dog Mr. Peabody and his adopted human son Sherman first popped up on TV in the early Sixties as interstitial entertainment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Dog and boy have since come a long way from the original’s crude animation – and even cruder treatment of historical figures like Geronimo. This zippy new picture from DreamWorks Animation embraces a more socially progressive mindset, elevates the Cartoon Scatology Imperative by hooking it to alternative fuel and Trojan-horse humor, and thumbs a nose at the lowest-common-denominator culture to – egads! – celebrate a brainiac. What a charmer.
Directed by Rob Minkoff and evidencing the same deftness at macro adventure and micro emotional beats he displayed in The Lion King and the Stuart Little movies, Mr. Peabody & Sherman catches newbies up right away by charting Peabody’s beginnings as an unadoptable stray – because what little boy wants to take home a puppy who cites Plato as reason not to play fetch? – and his meteoric rise as “valedogtorian” at Harvard, a scientist, and self-professed inventor of the fist bump. Eventually, the stray adopts one of his own, young Sherman, and together they romp through time and space in the Wayback Machine. In a lovely little grace note that mimics Up’s marriage montage, we see Sherman’s childhood unfurl against a historical backdrop that co-stars George Washington, Gandhi, and baby Moses in a basket, gliding by as Peabody teaches Sherman how to swim.
As befits a movie about (in part) time travel, the story (scripted by Craig Wright) doesn’t unfold in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks; present-day jaunts to France on the precipice of the Reign of Terror, ancient Egypt, and da Vinci’s Renaissance; a quick trip to the future; and one mighty rip in the time-space continuum. After so many paint-by-number narratives in animation, Mr. Peabody & Sherman’s fizzy feeling of discombobulation is nothing short of delightful. (The puns are pretty terrific, too.) Historians may blanch at the liberties taken here (and Jefferson would surely lift an eyebrow at Washington filching his “we hold these truths to be self-evident” line), but the spirit of the thing – the way it champions intellectual curiosity and critical thinking – warmed this nerd’s heart tremendously.