(2013) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Alison Janney, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Patrick Warburton, Lake Bell, Zach Callison, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Lauri Fraser, Steve Valentine, Guillaume Aretos, Karan Brar, Joshua Rush, Mel Brooks, Thomas Lennon, Tom McGrath, Leila Birch. Directed by Rob Minkoff
Those of a certain age group (i.e. my own) will remember with great fondness the Jay Ward cartoons on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show, from Fractured Fairy Tales to my own personal favorite, Peabody’s Improbable History. They were subversive for their time, with humor that sailed above my innocent yet pointy little child head but still the cartoons managed to educate about history almost despite themselves. When you compare them to the drekk that passes for animation on the Cartoon Network, it’s clear that modern animators think that modern kids are dumber than a sackful of dead cats.
In this 3D updating of the Jay Ward cartoon, Mr. Peabody (Burrell) – a brilliant beagle who also is able to talk – is the adoptive father of Sherman (Charles), a none-too-bright but full of heart kid who has trouble making friends at school. Mr. Peabody has invented a time machine called the WABAC to help teach Sherman about history.
When the gentle Sherman gets into a fight with the overbearing Penny (Winter) at school, Mr. Peabody realizes that something is wrong. Peabody is summoned to the principal’s office where he is confronted by Ms. Grunion (Janney), a social worker who thinks that dogs are not fit parents and threatens to take Sherman away if an upcoming visit to Peabody’s apartment turns up any irregularities. Peabody also takes the opportunity to invite Penny’s family – parents Paul (Colbert) and Patty (Mann) – to dinner.
At first things go swimmingly well as Peabody charms both the parents. However, Penny is a tougher nut to crack and when Sherman accidentally lets slip that there is a time machine in the house, he is forced to prove it to her when she calls him a liar. Of course, the spoiled little princess finds herself in ancient Egypt as the bride of Tutankhamen (Callison) and looking forward to a life of indolent pleasure, not wanting to return back with Sherman.
In desperation, he gets his father to intervene. Mr. Peabody must drag the unwilling brat back to the present so that he can keep the nosy Ms. Grunion from finding an excuse to take Sherman away and while he’s at it repair a disturbance in the space-time continuum. It’s a dog’s life indeed.
Burrell, the star of Modern Family is the perfect choice to replace the late Bill Scott as the voice of Peabody. He captures the dog’s supercilious demeanor and urbane charm but adds a little bit of beagle warmth to the mix. He gets the inflections and tone Scott used down perfectly. It can safely be said that Burrell carries the film and should a sequel be made (and it looks like that’s a distinct possibility judging on the box office) could be a lucrative sidelight for the actor.
While there are a few brief celebrity cameos (Brooks as a kvetching Einstein is the best), the movie doesn’t stoop to being a cameo-fest as some other DreamWorks films have tended to do. There are also fewer pop culture references than a lot of the movies from the DreamWorks studio, although there are enough of them to be pleasing when they arrive but not so many as to be overbearing.
The animation is cool looking enough, particularly the WABAC which going from the clunky 60s version is a kind of red orb looking not unlike Spock’s spaceship on the reboot of Star Trek. There are plenty of nods to the original series (such as the street sweeper who ended every five minute MP&S cartoon in the 60s making an appearance in the end credits) but has enough cool credibility to keep most young ‘uns (particularly the boy types) delighted, which has to make every mom smile. And most moms and dads, who grew up on this stuff, will have enough here to feel a pleasant wave of nostalgia break over them like a tropical beach. All in all as far as this film is concerned I’d say “Mission Accomplished” – and not in a George W. Bush manner either.
REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming. Some nice animated effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Lacks the sophistication of the original cartoon. Dumbed down a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild peril and a bit of rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A sketch of Bullwinkle hangs in Peabody’s apartment over his yoga mat.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monsters vs. Aliens
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: 300: Rise of an Empire