Baby boomers will fondly remember the early 1960s television cartoon series “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” created by the late Jay Ward, which smartly satirized both American pop culture and the headlines of the JFK era in America. While Rocky the Flying Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose were understandably the most memorable characters (though I was partial to the duo’s inept villainous Russian counterparts, Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale), the “Peabody and Sherman” segment of the show had its share of fans.
Mr. Peabody was a brainy canine who spoke with a patrician lilt and had adopted a boy he named Sherman. Peabody was an inventor for whom no obstacle was insurmountable. In a tongue-in-cheek salute to HG Wells, Peabody created a time machine which he named the WABAC (“way back”), in which he and Sherman traveled back to major events and interacted with historical figures in a playful manner. It was Ward’s way of wanting to impart the joy of history to his audience while thumbing his nose at dull school history textbooks.
Unlike the 2000 film flop “The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle” that was a mixture of live action and cartoon (a la 1987’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”) and starred Robert De Niro, Rene Russo and Piper Perabo, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is an entirely animated feature.
Considering it has been over 50 years since the last “Peabody & Sherman” cartoon was made by Ward, this movie stays very faithful to his vision. Ty Burrell, one of the stars of ABC’s biggest hit, “Modern Family,” does such a spot-on impression of the late Bill Scott’s Peabody that it is impossible to tell the difference. Max Charles is not as fortunate channeling Walter Tetley’s Sherman from the TV series. The 2014 Sherman is a lot more doltish than the eager and brighter 1959 TV cartoon character.
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” nicely walks the line between satisfying its intended young audience, which may know nothing about the cartoon’s television roots, and its adult audience, which either saw the TV series in its first run or at least in syndicated reruns.
For the kids there are great 3-D special effects as well as the public school love-hate relationship between Sherman and his nemesis but soon-to-be best friend, the troublesome but deep-down goodhearted Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter).
Longtime Peabody fans won’t be disappointed, as the movie has those beloved puns that elicit simultaneous chuckles and groans. “I graduated valedogtorian from Harvard,” Peabody states nonchalantly in the beginning of the film. The movie also makes good use of the voices of Stephen Colbert, Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, Dennis Haysbert (I thought he was going to try to sell Allstate insurance to Mr. Peabody when I heard his voice!) and yes, Mel Brooks.
As per the old cartoon series, the writers let their imaginations fly as our heroes go back to the French Revolution, the Italian Renaissance (it turns out that Leonardo da Vinci and Mr. Peabody are longtime chums), the Trojan Horse and King Tut’s time in ancient Egypt. The best bit is having a cartoon “Bill Clinton” make a quick comment following George Washington and Abe Lincoln.
Just about the only bit that doesn’t work is a harridan social worker from some protective services agency who wants to remove Sherman from Mr. Peabody’s custodianship.
You have to love a film that asks the question, “If a boy can adopt a dog, then why can’t a dog adopt a boy?”