A lot of people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s have cited MAD magazine as the formative pop-culture influence on their way of seeing. The relentless snark, cynicism, and satire of MAD added up to something larger — a way of standing outside the frame, of positioning yourself as cheekily superior to whatever was in front of you. But if you were a little kid, before you even got to MAD, there were the cartoons of Jay Ward: Rocky & His Friends and its offshoots, Fractured Fairy Tales and Peabody’s Improbable History. These were the first children’s cartoons, maybe ever, that had the media-age cleverness to lampoon their own storytelling, their own connect-the-dots whimsicality and cut-rate animation technique and bad puns. When a Peabody cartoon set during, say, the American Revolution ended with Mr. Peabody saying something like, ”What’s the matter, Sherman? Haven’t you ever heard of chicken?catch a Tory?” it was as much a postmodern rim shot as anything that ever came out of the mouth of Conan O’Brien. Characters like Rocky and Bullwinkle and Mr. Peabody were more than just fun ”friends.” They taught a whole generation how to look at the world through a glass, ironically.
Now, of course, that’s how more people than not look at the world, and a great deal of kiddie cartoon culture is one big detached ironic snarkfest. Which means that a movie like Mr. Peabody & Sherman, even when it’s genuinely trying to be true to the spirit of the original, may have a tricky time recapturing what it was that was so special about the casually insane, tossed-off fizziness of Peabody and Sherman’s four-minute adventures in the WABAC machine. The characters can still climb into that time machine, of course, but there’s simply no going back to an age when Mr. Peabody’s brainy quizzicality was novel. Ty Burrell, voicing Peabody in the movie, gets the character’s speedy, super-logical rhythms without quite nailing his dry delight. He needed a touch more savoir faire, a dash of Tim Gunn. That said, over the years, there have been a lot of famous kids’ shows turned into brightly colored dumbed-down movies, and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, by contrast, is an agreeably brisk and word-happy entertainment for little ones. If you grew up with Mr. Peabody, it doesn’t totally recapture the magic of the original, but it doesn’t leave you feeling cheated, either.
The movie fills in a lot of stuff that was implicit before — like, for instance, Peabody’s whole status as a ”genius.” Now, he’s not just a hyper-articulate dog in a bowtie and round spectacles. He’s a formidable achiever who speaks every language and plays every instrument, and is also a world-class chef, an Olympic Gold Medalist, a licensed chiropractor, a state-of-the-art mixologist (favorite drink: Einstein on the Beach), and a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who advises heads of state. In addition, he’s the doting father of an adoptive human son, the orange-haired and ordinary Sherman (voiced by Max Charles). The attempt to give their relationship a backstory (complete with a montage accompanied by John Lennon’s ”Beautiful Boy”) and a core of ”feeling” may have been necessary to sustain a feature-length film, but I cringed just a bit at hearing Sherman say ”I love you, Mr. Peabody,” because the whole camaraderie of these two — a smart-mouth geek of a dog as father to an earnest geek of a boy? Sure! — is better when it’s left completely deadpan and unexplained.
The plot has Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Sherman’s mean-girl antagonist at school, Penny (Ariel Winter), skipping around in time and landing in three major historical epochs: ancient Egypt, where Penny becomes the beau of King Tut; the Italian Renaissance, where our gang helps Leonardo Da Vinci put the smile on the Mona Lisa and then takes a perilous action ride in Da Vinci’s fabulous flying machine (Sherman ”grows” out of his youthful anxiety when he’s persuaded to take the controls); and the Trojan War, with burly, goofy soldiers who might have stepped out of a standard DreamWorks cartoon. Mr. Peabody & Sherman has a zesty time mixing and matching historical figures, from Marie Antoinette to George Washington. Yet the movie never, to my mind, conjured quite the quirky effervescence of such brainiac animated features as the Jimmy Neutron or SpongeBob SquarePants movies. Back in his day, Mr. Peabody was a dog whose over-civility had bite. Now he’s a genius you want to cuddle with. B