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.