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While it’s certainly possible that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was influenced by Peabody’s Improbable History, the Keanu Reeves-Alex Winter comedy feels more like a touchstone for audiences going into DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman than the ‘60s cartoon shorts on which it’s based.
Expanding the source material’s time-travel vignettes into a feature-length narrative, director Rob Minkoff’s Mr. Peabody & Sherman front-loads the duo’s adventures with one-dimensional obstacles and relationship challenges with lowest-common-denominator conflicts as the canine genius and his preteen companion zigzag through antiquity with a comedian’s, rather than a historian’s, eye for detail.
Ty Burrell (Modern Family) provides the voice of Peabody, who finds Sherman (Max Charles of The Neighbors) in an alley and adopts the boy as his son. Although primarily preoccupied by his various industrial and philanthropic obligations, Peabody educates Sherman via the WABAC Machine, a time-travel device that allows the duo to visit important people and time periods in history. But on his first day at school with other kids, Sherman runs afoul of Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter of Modern Family), and the two of them get into a fight when he inadvertently imperils her spot as teacher’s pet.
After disapproving child services counselor Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney of The West Wing) threatens to take Sherman away from his puppy pop, Peabody arranges a meeting with Penny and her parents. But when Penny gets lost in ancient Egypt while goading Sherman into using the WABAC Machine, he and Mr. Peabody find themselves on an adventure across time to rescue his classmate and prevent the time-space continuum from imploding.
While it feels unlikely that even parents of young children will remember the 1950s and ‘60s Rocky & Bullwinkle Show segments that introduced the characters, it’s difficult to understand why Peabody and Sherman were candidates for the big-screen treatment given the way in which they were adapted. Notwithstanding the duo’s potential as educators, introducing and exploring great moments in history for book-phobic children, the movie gives its leads barely tolerable personalities and then puts them through spectacularly unsympathetic paces. Although he’s not quite as condescending as he was in the original cartoons, Peabody is an oblivious blowhard, while Sherman is brainy and feckless only in measures that drive the plot rather than define him as a person.
That said, screenwriter Craig Wright (Six Feet Under) populates the entire ensemble with annoying, obstinate, unappealing characters, which is a problem considering we’re supposed to like at least a few of them by the film’s end. Penny, for example, is a mischievous, stubborn bully who spends most of the movie wheedling Sherman into doing things he either knows he probably shouldn’t be doing or was explicitly told by Peabody not to do. But even if Ms. Grunion’s prejudice against a dog adopting a human child is supposed to be “understandable,” she’s just a horrible person who seems to have no earnest compassion for the children she’s meant to be protecting.
Meanwhile, everything that happens in the film from one scene to the next is created from whole cloth – the WABAC runs low on gas, a black hole pops up out of nowhere, and so on and so forth. That might be perfectly serviceable episodic entertainment on television, but on film it’s lowbrow even for sitcom writing, and completely fails to generate any kind of meaningful emotional stakes. But when he needs for there to be a gut punch of feeling, Wright just spells out those distressing moments, or reduces the conflict to the most simplistic dimensions possible, guaranteeing a response without actually earning it.
Although there are plenty of other problems that plague the film, it will probably resonate moderately well with parents who think that “good” family entertainment includes just enough double entendres to make them giggle while their youngish children guffaw at colorful squash-and-stretch animation. But I can’t be the only person (including the filmmakers) who recognized the Wright’s “Beethoven with modern technology” gag as a ripoff of Bill & Ted’s much better one – and I’m not even a fan of the earlier film. Either way, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is the kind of movie that makes me wish that I had a time machine of my own – if not to stop the filmmakers from making it in the first place, then at the very least so I never had to see it.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman opens Friday nationwide.