It’s been a while since we’ve had a film based on a Jay Ward cartoon – the last being Rocky and Bullwinkle in 2000. An adaptation of Peabody’s Improbable History, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is about a genius dog and his not so genius adopted boy gallivanting around history in the WABAC Machine.
This tale of dog and boy comes with a voice acting pedigree enviable of any modern animated film. Ty Burrell, Ariel Winter (both from Modern Family) and Max Charles from the under-appreciated The Neighbors star and Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mel Brooks, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Lake Bell, and Dennis Haysbert all appear in roles of varying importance.
The basic plot is about Sherman (Charles) not fitting in. When he’s bullied for no apparent reason by Penny Peterson (Winter) he’s called a dog and ends up retaliating like one. In an attempt to smooth things over, Mr. Peabody (Burrell) invites Penny and her parents (Colbert and Mann) over for dinner before the evil school counselor, Mrs. Grunion (Janney) can remove Sherman from his custody. Of course, WABAC hijinks ensue. Along the way, semblances of lessons on fitting in, independence, family and some other vague buzzwords are more or less learned.
To write a fair review, I refreshed my memory by watching the original first episode of the cartoon short as well as another random episode. Amazingly, this updated iteration is surprisingly faithful to the source material. Unfortunately, due to the source material being outdatedly racist, painfully punny, and totally spastic in a way meant to be taken in only small bits, that’s not a good thing.
The original short was titled “improbable history,” giving the understanding that what was seen was the result of the two time travelers interference and/or the embellishment of Mr. Peabody’s narration. The film presents itself as an almost factual field trip despite the wacky improbableness of it all, making for a confusing, uneven tone. Even the time travel, explained away in the shorts as “enter the WABAC, appear in the past,” is given pseudo-scientific explanations that through Trekkie jargon at the wall hoping some of it sticks, resulting in a convoluted explanation and solutions to problems that make no actual sense despite trying to desperately act like they do. The time travel in Free Birds makes more sense than this mess.
Okay, okay, so it’s not historically accurate and doesn’t explain time travel well. Are those things important in a kids’ movie? Maybe not, if the story is good and the characters are funny. But no, swing and a miss on that one. I like puns – the audience, was actually groaning in what I can only assume was physical pain due to how bad the puns in this film are. “Have her cake and edict too.” Really? That’s the best you could come up with? Not all the jokes were bad puns. No, some of them were just shy of being actually racist – not to mention the terribly stereotyped and poorly done accents of various cultures – while both poop jokes and boob jokes showed up every ten minutes. Jokes fly over kids’ heads only to splat in the faces of adults while the gags meant to elicit laughs from the younger crowd either fall flat or rely on gross-out humor. There’s not enough innocence to be a wholesome family film and not enough wit to be a clever cartoon.
This is a flop all around and is not redeemed by the two somewhat clever jokes near the end – neither of which kids will get. It does, however, manage to feel like an earnest effort, even if that effort was wasted on something that was never meant to be watched for more than five minutes at a time.
Mrs. Hamster did not attend this screening
My rating: Two out of five hats
Mr. Peabody & Sherman quantum leaps into 3,934 theaters in 3D and 2D March 7