(NEW YORK) — For most kids today, this will probably be their first run-in with the characters of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who were first introduced in segments during the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV cartoons of the 1950s and 60s. Mr. Peabody, you may recall, is a glasses-wearing beagle that not only talks, he’s the smartest creature to ever live. Sherman is his 7-year-old glasses-wearing adopted son. Together they live in a killer penthouse apartment in a big city. They also frequently travel back in time because, of course, Mr. Peabody invented a time machine. Remember, he’s really smart.
The basic premise involves Peabody, Sherman, and Sherman’s classmate, Penny, traveling back in time and experiencing famous moments in history first-hand: Hey, there’s Leonardo da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa! Whoops, we’re in the middle of the Trojan War! Over there, is that Marie Antoinette? Let them eat cake! And so on.
The device is a sneaky way to make history fun for kids, kind of like cheese sauce on vegetables, and I bet most parents will probably appreciate a little extra learning tucked into a Saturday matinee. For kids, it won’t feel like homework. There are plenty of jokes where various things fall out of various butts — and let’s be honest, many adults will enjoy that, too. Adults should also enjoy the distinct Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure vibe that happens whenever history and time travel are combined.
History lessons aren’t the only thing Mr. Peabody & Sherman teaches: there are lessons about inclusion, bullying, and name-calling, which parents may also appreciate. But they feel a little shoe-horned in and obvious. At one point, you may feel like there’s a neon sign hanging over the movie, flashing, “THIS IS THE MORAL OF THE STORY.”
Like most marquee animated films these days, Mr. Peabody & Sherman fulfills the unwritten animation rule that recognizable names must voice the characters. Modern Family’s Ty Burrell stars as the title beagle, and at times you can hear the dorky dad from the ABC sitcom squeak through, though not in a distracting way. His daughter on the show, played by Ariel Winter, here plays Penny, the female foil to clumsy, earnest young Sherman, played with charming precociousness by 10-year-old Max Charles. Other familiar names jumping in on the action include Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, animation mainstay Patrick Warburton, Allison Janney, Stanley Tucci, and Mel Brooks in a brief appearance.
Animated movies today are pretty much required to work on two levels — one that’s goofy and silly and shiny enough to hold the attention of children for 90 minutes, and another that’s hip and smart and a touch subversive enough to hold the attention of adults for the same amount of time. Mr. Peabody & Sherman strikes the right balance of bathroom jokes and historical humor. It lacks a bit of the originality of The Lego Movie and it doesn’t have as much heart as Frozen, so it likely won’t become a classic or an Oscar nominee. But it will keep both children and parents entertained long after the popcorn is finished.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.
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