The Peabody’s Improbable History shorts, which aired alongside the adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, plainly stated their approach to actual historical events right there in the title. The super-intelligent beagle and his boy Sherman once rescued Ludwig Van Beethoven from the middle of a busy intersection filled with cars—in 19th-century Vienna! Mr. Peabody & Sherman continues that fast and loose relationship with history. Agamemnon jokes to his Greek soldiers about Achilles hurting his heel from inside the Trojan horse, despite the fact that the infamous injury doesn’t occur until the end of the Trojan War. And Marie Antoinette giggles like a buffoon while stuffing her face with various fancy cakes. But unlike the whimsical, slapstick-driven shorts on which it’s based, this feature-length adaptation adds an obligatory emotional arc that feels at odds with the zany spirit of historical time-travel tales.
In a reversal of “boy adopts dog” narratives, Mr. Peabody (Modern Family’s Ty Burrell) discovers the infant Sherman (Max Charles) abandoned in a cardboard box—a rewrite of the Improbable History backstory, which had Peabody rescuing a much older Sherman from bullies. As a successful inventor, scholar, and business icon, Peabody smugly presumes it should be easy for a multitalented creature to raise a child. On Sherman’s first day of school, he’s bullied by Penny (Burrell’s Family co-star Ariel Winter), prompting an intervention from a child-protection official (Allison Janney) looking to place Sherman in a home with human parents. That leads to an awkward reconciliation dinner with Penny and her parents at the Peabody residence, which quickly devolves into Sherman and Penny gallivanting through time, eventually requiring Peabody’s rescue.
Sherman’s historical excursions with Peabody are framed as an overly involved parent attempting to broaden the mind of his young charge. They use the WABAC machine to investigate famous events, but unlike the original cartoon, there’s no clarification that they’re traveling in a “should have been” machine that justifies the kooky bent of the historical figures, from Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) to George Washington (Animaniacs’ Jess Harnell). Sherman even informs his classmates about apocryphal stories, simultaneously debunking perpetuated historical myths while roving through wildly inaccurate scenarios.
Peabody’s air of superiority and stuffy ingenuity permeate much of the film’s humor, which relies on constant punning and Sherman’s blank stares of misunderstanding. But Peabody & Sherman also tries to link the two characters together in a heartfelt father-son tale, a dog unadoptable for his quirks attempting to provide a loving home for a child of similar circumstances. Penny—seemingly thrown into the story to provide a main female character—begins as a bully jealous of the knowledge Sherman has accrued from his father, but once along for the adventure, she morphs into both the object of Sherman’s affection and the “bad influence” who coaxes him out of his shell and drives a wedge between him and a protective Peabody. It’s a balancing act that never quite feels natural. In trying to attach a moral arc to the story, the filmmakers pull focus from the whimsical disregard for actual events.
The animators resist employing Dreamworks’ signature smirk, but many characters have oversized heads and rail-thin limbs, their eyes gigantic and their expressions over-emoted. Thankfully, when the 3-D action sequences get going—in ancient Egypt, Renaissance Florence, and Troy in particular—most of the problems momentarily melt away. Director Rob Minkoff has both The Lion King and the Stuart Little films on his résumé, which helps explain why Mr. Peabody & Sherman nails its big set pieces while getting dragged down by cloying sentimentality.
For the first two acts, the wacky humor keeps the ancillary emotional plot at bay. But after a twist forces Sherman to break Peabody’s one cardinal rule of time-travel—used to prevent paradoxical self-encounters—the wheels come off. Peabody resorts to characters shouting incoherent technobabble at the problem as the film rises to an explosive finale. (One example: The final action sequence grossly misuses the phrase “terminal velocity.”) This won’t matter to kids occupied by bright colors and whooshing action. But the astutely droll tone of the original shorts only shows up here in fragments.