It’s a risky proposition taking something that worked in 7-minute stretches more than 50 years ago and trying to spin it out into 90 minutes of contemporary movie. It certainly hasn’t worked with other attempts to mine the old Rocky and Friends show for box office gold. The fact that it mostly does work here is something of a miracle — or at least a pleasant surprise. OK, so it’s not quite on the loaves-and-fishes level of miracle, but in the winter of our moviegoing discontent, it’ll pass for one. I probably won’t run out and buy the DVD when it hits the stores in a few months, but I had a good time with Mr. Peabody & Sherman. It’s funny, clever, well-made, entertaining and even a little touching without succumbing to outright gooeyness.
The film isn’t exactly the same as the old cartoons, but I’m not sure that anyone — apart from a few critics who seem a little too attached to their childhoods — really cares all that much about its departures. I’m slightly skeptical that Mr. Peabody and Sherman were a major driving force in the popularity of the show when it was new. (Though it almost certainly had more draw than the “Aesop and Son” segments.) This take uses the same basic character designs, but is much more elaborate in its computer animation. Much of the clean simplicity of the settings has been retained, though everything looks considerably more solid — without sacrificing the naive charm. It captures the basic spirit of the show’s look, but elaborates on it without blanding it into facelessness.
The big departure from the show lies in its story. Where Peabody (Ty Burrell) had no backstory in the show, here we learn how he was the puppy that was so smart that no one wanted him. We’re also given a rundown of his scientific accomplishments. No longer is Sherman (Max Jacobs, TV’s The Neighbors) a kind of pet and sidekick to the dog, he’s Peabody’s legally adopted son. This is where the movie gets its emotional center and its central plot — a plot that is mostly an inversion of every childhood yarn about a boy and his dog that ever assaulted your tear ducts. The mechanics of it lie in Sherman getting into a fight at school with the obnoxious Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter, Burrell’s TV daughter on Modern Family). This draws not only the ire of Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) but the interference of a nasty social worker, Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), who is determined to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody and place him in a “proper home.” (Yes, there’s a subtext here, but it’s not really explored in any depth.)
Peabody’s plan is to make Sherman and Penny friends and win over the Petersons and Ms. Grunion. While he has no problem winning over the Petersons (chiropractic skills can be useful), Sherman can only engage Penny’s interest by doing the one thing he isn’t supposed to do — take her time-traveling in the WABAC machine. This is where the real problem begins — along with the bulk of improbable historical encounters. Most of it works, and all of it moves fast enough that it hardly matters. There’s a charming use of John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy” on the soundtrack that sets a nice tone early on. (This isn’t entirely surprising, since director Rob Minkoff had tapped Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” for an emotional kick in his 2002 Stuart Little 2, but this is much more effective.) The expected puns are there, and they are all appropriately groan-worthy. The jokes are silly enough to please the kids, and they work on a more savvy level for adults, which is the best approach for a family film. The big effects-driven ending? Well, it could be (and has been) used in any number of other animated movies, but it’s fine. Put it this way, you could do a lot worse — like seeing just about any other recent mainstream movie out there. Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.
Showing at Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher.