×

Film Review: ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’

Swift, peppy and defiantly unendearing, DreamWorks’ latest toon updates the zany adventures of the time-traveling dog-and-his-boy sideshow from 'Rocky and Bullwinkle.'

With:

Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mel Brooks, Karan Brar.

It was Samuel Butler who wrote of dogs that “you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too.” He did not reckon with the prissy, annoyingly infallible canine hero of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” Swift, peppy and defiantly unendearing, DreamWorks’ latest toon updates the zany adventures of the time-traveling dog-and-his-boy sideshow from Jay Ward’s 1960s TV series “Rocky and Bullwinkle” — an arcane starting point for contempo kiddie fare, and not one that adapts entirely comfortably to the studio’s blend of state-of-the-art imagery and touchy-feely personal issues. Though the pic is sufficiently bright and gag-laden to lure families in a release frame short on comparable distractions, its commercial legs will depend on how readily tots accept its bizarre premise.

The film’s release in Blighty on Feb. 7 precedes its U.S. opening by a month — a surprising strategy, considering how many of its elements, from the source material to the lead vocal presence of “Modern Family” star Ty Burrell, are identifiable principally to American audiences. The “Rocky and Bullwinkle” characters may seem dated even to accompanying parents, though the film cleverly addresses the problem by locating the modern-day narrative in a New York nonetheless laden with ’60s retro styling — from Mr. Peabody’s Jetsons-meets-Philip Johnson dream house to the pair’s natty Coke-bottle spectacles — that cannily evokes the rubberized chic of Pixar’s “The Incredibles.”

The design will reassure any nostalgia-chasing fans of the original series that they’re in an equivalent universe, as will the script’s fondness for the knowingly lame punnery that was Ward’s comic stock-in-trade; the pre-credit sequence alone exhausts the verbal possibilities of the word “dog.” (The revelation that our canine genius graduated “valedogtorian” is as witty as it gets.) In most other respects, however, the rules of this story world have been rather dramatically altered. Ward’s creation treated as a jaunty absurdity the concept of a talking dog with an adopted human son and a time machine named the WABAC: With the freakishly intelligent Mr. Peabody treating doltish schoolboy Sherman more like a pet than a son (like the power play between Charlie Brown and Snoopy taken to surreal extremes), it wasn’t a setup played for emotional truth.

Written by playwright and TV stalwart Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under,” “Dirty Sexy Money”), “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” offers a slicker, sweeter take on the idea, adding a wholesome dose of family values to the central relationship — complete with syrupy montage, scored to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy,” detailing just how this strange adoption came to pass. Peabody (Burrell), a beagle-like pooch whose precocious humanoid behavior left him unclaimed at the puppy farm, finds the infant Sherman (Max Charles) abandoned in an alleyway, takes him in and raises him as his own. “If a boy can adopt a dog,” a judge reasons, “I see no reason why a dog can’t adopt a boy.”

Very young viewers may take a similarly diplomatic view of the situation. Others may find it all a bit disconcerting, particularly as the film launches full-throttle into the era-hopping action — with the aforementioned backstory saved for later, the opening setpiece sees Peabody whiz Sherman off to 18th-century Versailles for a firsthand history lesson with Marie Antoinette, before we’ve ascertained the exact relationship between these oddly matched principals.

“Just Go With It” would have been a suitable alternate title for the film, but even those who take these outlandish goings-on at face value may be thrown when we’re invited to invest in the psychological reality of this father-son bond. When Sherman starts elementary school, the skepticism of his fellow students — notably Penny (Ariel Winter), a classroom bully on whom the boy nurses a poorly disguised crush — arouses enough conflict to draw the villainous attention of gorgon-like social worker Miss Grunion (Allison Janney). The film’s underlying themes of accepting difference and familial belonging run obviously counter to Grunion’s fast-held conviction that a dog is no suitable parent for a human boy — though it’s hard not to wonder if she has a point, and what the real-world equivalency is for the film’s opposing stance.

It’s probably best not to think about these things too hard — which is just as well, since the narrative’s time-travel element allows for plenty of fluffy, fleet-footed action, particularly when contrived circumstances lead to Sherman and Penny taking the WABAC out for an unsupervised spin. There was presumably a learning-while-playing intent behind the film’s irreverent whistle-stop tour of assorted historical eras, from Ancient Egypt (where Penny is briefly betrothed to King Tut) to Renaissance Italy (where Peabody’s pratfalls serve as the inspiration for Mona Lisa’s smile), though it’s doubtful young auds will leave the theater with much academic insight — beyond the knowledge that George Washington is a useful man to have around in the middle of a space-time continuum crisis.

It’s worth noting that this is director Rob Minkoff’s first fully animated feature since “The Lion King,” though he hasn’t carried much old-school Disney texture over to the familiar DreamWorks house style. With Oscar-winning cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) on board as a visual consultant, the animation retains the wonky proportions and elastic movement of the original cartoons, though with a lushly expanded palette and a now-requisite airbrushed finish that hampers expressivity in the case of certain characters. (The 3D is sleek and, with the exception of a few thrusting swords in more historically heated interludes, entirely dispensable.) Danny Elfman’s score, like much else here, is zippy in the moment but not especially distinctive.

Film Review: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

Reviewed at Vue West End, London, Feb. 1, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production:

(Animated) A 20th Century Fox release of a DreamWorks Animation presentation of a PDI/DreamWorks, Bullwinkle Studios production. Produced by Denise Nolan Cascino, Alex Schwartz. Executive producers, Tiffany Ward, Jason Clark, Eric Ellenbogen.

Crew:

Directed by Rob Minkoff. Screenplay, Craig Wright, based on characters created by Jay Ward. Editor, Michael Andrews; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, David James; art director, Timothy Lamb; re-recording mixer, Ryan Cole; visual consultant, Guillermo Navarro; visual effects supervisor, Philippe Denis; associate producer, Holly Edwards. 

With:

Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, Stephen Tobolowsky, Mel Brooks, Karan Brar.

More Film

  • Toronto Film Festival Lineup

    Toronto Film Festival: 'Joker,' 'Ford v Ferrari,' 'Hustlers' Among Big Premieres

    This year’s Toronto Film Festival will feature super-villain origin stories, splashy literary adaptations, and Tom Hanks as the most beloved performer in children’s television. The Canadian celebration of all things movies unveiled its 2019 lineup on Tuesday, and it appears to be an eclectic mixture of glossy awards bait, auteur-driven indies, and populist crowd-pleasers. It’s [...]

  • Sylvester Stallone Variety Cover story

    Sylvester Stallone Feels Robbed of an Ownership Stake in 'Rocky': 'I Was Furious'

    Sylvester Stallone shares an uncanny, symbiotic connection with Rocky, the underdog boxer character he created four decades ago — a kindred spirit who served as his creative muse in spawning one of Hollywood’s most successful film franchises. In his long career Stallone also played another memorable screen role — John Rambo — but Rocky was [...]

  • Beware of Children

    First Trailer Released for Venice Days Entry 'Beware of Children' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the first trailer for Dag Johan Haugeruds’ politically and socially charged drama “Beware of Children,” which premieres as part of the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days section. The pic, which is being sold at Venice by Picture Tree Intl., features the dramatic aftermath of a tragic incident in [...]

  • The Tower animated film about Palestinians

    ‘The Tower’ Animation Wins Japan's Skip City Festival

    “The Tower,” Mats Grorud’s animation about the plight of the Palestinians, as viewed through the eyes of an 11-year-old girl in Beirut, won the grand prize in the international competition at the 16th edition of Skip City International D-Cinema Festival. The film also scooped the section’s audience award. The Skip City festival, which launched in [...]

  • For web story

    Transgender Immigrant Pic 'Lingua Franca,' Thriller 'Only Beasts' to Bow at Venice Days

    New York-based Filipina filmmaker Isabel Sandoval’s “Lingua Franca,” about a transgender immigrant, is among 11 competition entries, all world premieres, that will launch from the Venice Film Festival’s independently run Venice Days section. The only U.S. entry set to compete in the section modeled on Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight, “Lingua Franca” is Sandoval’s third work. It [...]

  • Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big

    Female-Led and LGBTQ Narratives Win Big At Durban FilmMart Awards

    DURBAN–Female-driven narratives and daring portraits of queer culture around the continent were the big winners at this year’s Durban FilmMart (DFM), the industry program of the Durban Intl. Film Festival, which handed out awards at a ceremony Monday night at the Southern Sun Maharani Hotel. Among the prize-winners were the story of a Zimbabwean woman [...]

  • Oscar Nominations Reactions Phyllis Nagy

    Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy Runs for Writers Guild Presidency, Citing Agency Stalemate

    Oscar-nominated screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is challenging Writers Guild of America West’s incumbent president David Goodman, citing his handling of the bitter stalemate between the WGA and Hollywood agents. Nagy announced her candidacy online Monday night, a day before the deadline for filing. She made the announcement  in a private online group as part of Writers for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content