Mr. Peabody & Sherman was probably one of those properties that was least requiring any kind of full-length movie adaptation. The original Peabody’s Improbably Histories (featured on The Bullwinkle Show) was, intentionally, a slight confection. Fractured Fairy Tales versions of history. Classics, for certain, but it’s difficult to imagine anyone building them into something else. DWA’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman, by necessity, is required to take the concept places it wasn’t originally meant to go, and while it could go very wrong, it ends up creating a rather charming tale of adventure and what makes a family. That it does so without straying too far from the source material is a worthy accomplishment, and one that shouldn’t be readily dismissed.
To begin with, there’s Mr. Peabody himself. Peabody is a genius dog who is never nonplussed, always on top of the situation, and always ready to take action. Here, he’s a little less dry than in the original shorts, but still, incredibly competent and rarely raises his voice. He has his moments of emotional displays, which in lesser hands might weaken his original characterization. Somehow, the film manages to imbue him with more psychological depths without robbing him of his level-headed genius qualities. This is quite an accomplishment in itself.
Peabody has always been a favorite of mine. Probably because he is the closest animated equivalent to those pulp men of action of old. If Doc Savage was a dog with a time machine, he’d be Mr. Peabody. The movie doesn’t remove Peabody’s competence. It emphasizes it. This is a dog who is good at EVERYTHING. In the course of the film, he cooks gourmet meals, hypnotizes people, plays dozens of musical instruments, engages in swordplay, breaks time, and fixes it. He exhibits a flawless mastery of everything he does, and that’s cool.
More importantly, the film doesn’t break Peabody’s demeanor in favor of pratfalls and silly pop culture references. I don’t think Peabody cracks a single joke in the film. His one moment of clumsiness is genuinely cute as he attempts to make Mona Lisa smile with an overly complicated analysis of a pratfall. He does exhibit his affection for bad puns that capped the original shorts, and it works. It’s another intriguing choice, and one that I have to praise.
As for his dogness (for lack of a better word), it’s something of a plot point. In some of the advertisements for the film, he demonstrates several dog tendencies, exploited for an easy laugh. I am pleased to say that none of those scenes actually ended up in the final film. It’s not that I’m against those jokes. It’s simply that the contradict the original characterization, where Peabody never acted like a dog, aside from a tendency to sit on all fours. The film’s plot does hinge on him being a dog in two ways, but both points work precisely because of how un-doglike he is.
You might think I’m overanalyzing Peabody, but I’ve never seen the point in licensing an original property if you’re going to throw aside much of what made the original unique. And Peabody chasing sticks isn’t terrible, but it certainly is imposing generic characterization in favor of a quick laugh.
None of this would matter if the movie wasn’t interesting beyond Peabody. Though it was never the original shorts’ intention to explore the idea of a dog adopting a boy, the film has placed this conflict at the center of its interpersonal relationships. It’s nice to see an adopted family in film. That the father and son are two different species is a gentle way of approaching the idea of interracial families, and I can see a lot of people from similar backgrounds relating to the struggles of Peabody and Sherman. Yeah, I know it’s a silly movie about a time-traveling dog and his boy, but, damnit, there are moments when the bonds between our heroes, the obstacles they face from within and from without, and the struggles they face came across as relatable and real.
Heck, if you were prone to overanalysis (not that I am, mind you), you could even view Peabody as a character who embodies the struggle of our selves versus the expectations of the world. Yes, he is a brilliant dog, but he is still a dog. Some people will never see past that, despite his many great accomplishments. This wasn’t something the original shorts were trying to discuss, but it’s a natural avenue of exploration for a longer story like this.
Ultimately, the film lives or dies by its relationships, and this one succeeds. It doesn’t sacrifice the original’s weird look at history in the process, and our heroes visit a few of the more standard moments in history (this is an all-ages film, after all), have some strange adventures, and end up becoming a stronger family for it. That’s laudable for a film based on shorts designed to last five minutes and get a quick laugh.
I love that the ancient Eqyptians are brown. And the montage of Peabody raising Sherman simultaneously through history’s greatest hits is both cute and emotionally touching.
It’s a good film. Enjoyable, brisk, well-animated, and funny, too. There’s heart here. Younger viewers might laugh at the silly characters, but adults will find a lot to enjoy her too. Including silly characters. It reminds me of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, a film that forced me to view the relationship dynamic between Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a whole new light. It might sound absurd, but it’s a worthy feat. I’ll never look at a dog and his boy in quite the same way, and that’s a good thing.
Final Recommendation: Worth Seeing.
Meanwhile, Sherman is easier. He’s an enthusiastic kid, and it’s not difficult to translate that into an interesting film character.