Friday, March 7, 2014


The format of the Peabody’s Improbable History segments on the old Bullwinkle cartoons was always pretty much the same. Wryly erudite Mr. Peabody and his enthusiastic ward Sherman would use their miraculous time machine the WABAC to visit some major historical figure. They would find Magellan or Napoleon or Marco Polo or Paul Revere or Beethoven or Zebulon Pike or whoever it was, usually personified as a radio-comedy ethnic stereotype, faced with some absurd obstacle to their greatest historical achievement. Peabody would then offer an equally absurd solution.

The implication was that we owed the Western Tradition to the paradoxical retroactive intercession of a little white dog in spectacles and a red bowtie who spoke like a Boston-Brahmin academic. Sherman served as his gee-whiz Boswell, and as audience for the excruciating puns with which Peabody closed his adventures.

When I was a kid, Mr. Peabody was who I wanted to be when I grew up. He wasn’t my only role model—there was also Mr. Spock, and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, and maybe Tom Lehrer. You get the idea. I wanted to be calm and benignly ironic yet genuinely and helpfully engaged with humanity. The result, of course, was an insufferable pedantic know-it-all who got beat up a lot.

The aspiration hasn’t worked out for me in adulthood, either—I’m too slow-witted, emotional and sentimental to get anywhere near that ideal. But I still love Peabody. There’s a tiny Peabody standing on my desk as I type these words, arms spread wide as if inviting an embrace.

This is all by way of making clear how complicated my feelings are about the feature film Mr. Peabody & Sherman, opening today.

Because Peabody is such an icon for me, I was, on the one hand, delighted to see him widely celebrated. On the other, I went into the film with trepidation, knowing that the simple, silly conceit of the crudely-animated original cartoons would be twisted to fit the tropes of the contemporary animated feature for kids.

The new film, directed by Rob Minkoff from a script by Craig Wright and several other hands, devises an adventure which allows our heroes visits to the French Revolution—Peabody rides a tumbrel and narrowly escapes the Guillotine—ancient Egypt, Leonardo’s Florence and the Trojan War. But of course all this must be strung along a present-day plot about Peabody’s custody of Sherman being challenged after the boy gets in a fight with a bullying girl at school, and the sting Peabody feels when Sherman resents the girl calling him “a dog.” Sherman gives the bully-girl an unauthorized ride in the WABAC, which results in peril to the space-time continuum, but also to a softening of feelings between the two.

If you find this sort of thing unworthy of the original Peabody’s dignity, I agree. But taken on its own merits, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is very cute, and though I could have done with less of the big time-warp climax, I must admit that the film isn’t dumbed-down, either—it’s full of ingenious gags, many of them witty cultural allusions but a surprising number of them mildly scatological low comedy. It even has a couple of pretty good, by which I mean terrible, puns.

Ty Burrell and Max Charles sound passably reminiscent of Bill Scott (incredibly, the same guy who voiced Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right) and Walter Tetley from the originals. The cast also includes Stanley Tucci as Leonardo, Lake Bell as Mona Lisa, Mel Brooks as Einstein and Patrick Warburton as a frat-boy-like Agamemnon.

It all works; my eleven-year-old was thoroughly entertained. A Peabody purist might growl at the idea of Peabody being subject to ordinary paternal anxieties—it takes him, somehow, from civilized to, well, tame.

But for most audiences this would be the pickiest of nitpicking. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is charming, and it’s built on a pretty sound joke—time travel is easy; parenting is hard.

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