If only this inconsistent comedy-adventure, based on the classic TV show, were as singularly clever and capable as its canine hero
“The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s first home, was a cartoon for adults, and the new big-screen adaptation of their adventures is too. Solidly assembled if fundamentally soulless, “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is a gift to parents: a shiny, never-dull chunk of edutainment for “Baby Einstein” grads that’ll keep the kids amused with pratfalls and butt jokes while reassuring their moms and dads that not even a Nobel Prize-winning, Olympic medal-collecting time-machine inventor can get something as hard as parenting right.
In the 1959-1964 TV series, Mr. Peabody was aloof and professorial — so much that his fur should’ve turned to tweed — who adopted the terminally dorky Sherman as a pet. Director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright sand down this edge for the film, realigning Mr. Peabody and Sherman as father and son. That was probably a necessary choice, and one that neatly lends itself to the movie’s subtle argument for the validity of nontraditional families.
Significantly nicer but still a proud know-it-all, this new incarnation of Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is an adoptive father who has taught his son too well. Sherman’s (Max Charles) smarts make him instant bully-bait on his first day at school; when Sherman literally bites back at his tormentor Penny (Ariel Winter), Mr. Peabody is called into the principal’s office to justify his adoption and custody of his son.
So far, so grown-up. But the fun starts soon enough when Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert) to his lavishly mod penthouse (which would score a zero on any baby-proofing test) for a charm attack. He makes “Einstein on the Beach” cocktails while encouraging Sherman to make nice with Penny, a plan that somehow leads to the kids taking the Way-Back Machine to ancient Egypt, where Penny becomes King Tut’s fiancée.
Convincing her to break off the engagement is easy enough: Mr. Peabody plainly informs her that when the boy-king dies in a few years, she’ll be vivisected and her skin and bones mummified. But getting back to the present isn’t so easy, which means detours to Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) in Renaissance Italy and to the Greek soldiers (led by Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon) at the final battle of the Trojan War. (Disappointingly, no one in the present or the past is ever the least bit freaked out by the existence of a talking dog.)
Mr. Peabody’s rat-a-tat narration of historical details is more faithful to the past than on the TV series — rest assured, the kids are learning something — and the balance between exciting chase scenes and playful twists on real-life personages is faultlessly calibrated to make both adults and children happy.
Mr. Peabody’s near-perfection is a surprising delight; there’s a particular pleasure in watching people (or a beagle, in this case) exercise their talents, whether it’s fencing with Robespierre or escaping an elaborate death trap in a pyramid through geometry.
Sherman, on the other hand, isn’t any more interesting than his TV counterpart. That’s because the seven-year-old is presented as any child would be from his parents’ perspective: he’s a doofus-in-distress who’s too young to get the simplest of jokes, yet he occasionally displays the emotional maturity and tactical genius of a chess master.
It’s easy enough to see why Mr. Peabody would think Sherman’s an everyboy, a dummy, and the smartest kid in the room, but the script’s strained efforts to juggle these different facets inevitably result in an inconsistent character who’s hard to track from scene to scene. Sherman’s contradictions ultimately rob specificity, and thus poignancy, from the father-son tension coursing through the plot.
Once the universe’s least likely time travelers return to the present day, the gentle satire in the historical adventures gives way to a squishy standoff against Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), the bigoted, anti-dog social worker trying to take Sherman away. That leads to an intricate climax whose whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts: there’s just too many of the jokes we’ve already seen and heard before.
“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” could have touched its audience’s hearts, but it settles for a tickle.