In “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a genius dog, a college graduate with a penchant for bad puns. Sherman (Max Charles) is a boy, adopted by Mr. Peabody and raised to appreciate knowledge. They wear matching glasses. Only one of them wears a bow tie (hint: it’s the dog). My parents grew up watching Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the subjects of a series of shorts called “Peabody’s Improbable History” from “Rocky and His Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show.” My mom is such a fan of the original show that our dog is named Mr. Peabody. I'm sure if I had come second, I would have been named Sherman, just for consistency.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman have stayed much the same in terms of their personalities, but their originally perplexing personal relationship is fleshed out in more detail in the film. Mr. Peabody, a know-it-all who refused to conform to society’s standards of how a dog should act, was never adopted. Because of his past, he decides to adopt a boy and save him from that fate. The crux of the film (and the television show) is that Mr. Peabody designed a “wayback machine” that allows him to witness important moments in history. The plot is kicked into gear when Sherman uses the wayback machine to prove a point to his brainy nemesis from school, Penny (Ariel Winter), against Mr. Peabody’s orders. The three then travel through time on an adventure to fix the past and the future.
Mr. Peabody’s vanity and self-confidence are intended to amuse, and Burrell pulls off the role impeccably. Not only does the dog think he is superior to the members of his own species, but he is also certain he’s better than all humans as well. “How hard could raising a child be?” he asks the judge who grants him approval, as a dog, to adopt. His plentiful puns—a throwback to the 1960s program—are intended to be silly jokes to himself that no one will understand, but they become painfully obvious in the over-the-top way he delivers them, if not to Sherman then to the audience. He wants everyone to know just how intelligent he is, and he never fails to share his knowledge. The character walks the line between grating and endearing with near perfection.
However, one detriment to the film is its length. While not a long movie at 82 minutes, the change in format from a series of cartoons under 15 minutes to a feature-length film is strained. The film changes venues frequently using the wayback machine like a series of episodes loosely strung together. If the film had a stronger central theme or lesson, it might have worked, but the characters just seem to shift aimlessly from historical period to historical period, leaving a mess in their wake. I would have much rather seen a new batch of shorts featuring the beloved characters.
The new animated film tries to revamp the wry, witty show to fit a more modern style. In doing so, the animation added another dimension (ha), breaking away from the easily doodle-able original character depictions to a now-familiar style reminiscent of “The Incredibles.” There’s nothing spectacular or revolutionary about the animation, but it’s not bad. The story feels forced into being “aww”-worthy and the places and times they travel to are uninspired. In reinventing a classic, the new “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” takes away some of what made the series so original. Instead of a “History of the World: Part I” or “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” for kids, the movie is just another average animated film that panders to parents’ nostalgia.