Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the new Dreamworks Animation adaptation of the classic Peabody & Sherman cartoons is how faithful it is to the originals. The film starts very much like the cartoons did: In a luxurious penthouse apartment high above New York City, Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), a dog in glasses, interrupts his yoga session to introduce himself to us. He’s a Harvard graduate, a Nobel laureate, a captain of industry, and an inventor of some repute. (Peabody’s inventions are a bit more up-to-date this time around: He gave us the fist-bump, Auto-Tune, tearaway pants, and Zumba.) Then, he introduces us to his son, Sherman (Max Charles), an ordinary-seeming boy whom Peabody adopted after finding him abandoned in a dark alley. Peabody is unwilling to show base emotions — when the boy says he loves him, the dog replies, “I have a high regard for you as well” — but he is fond of his son, and “to prepare him for all the wonders of the world, present and past,” he’s built them a time machine, called the WABAC machine (appropriately pronounced as "wayback"), which they use to travel throughout time and learn about history.
This was the basic plot of Peabody’s Improbably History, which ran back in the day as part of the generally surreal (and stoner-friendly) Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. And so, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, while updating the basic concept with CG animation and occasionally more topical humor (“Don’t tase me, bro,” King Agamemnon pleads with modern-day cops after they zap Robespierre down to the ground), sticks to that basic outline. Even the wordplay and puns are back. (“You can’t have your cake and edict, too,” said about the likelihood of Marie Antoinette redistributing wealth, is one of the better ones.) The plot feels not unlike something out of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Sherman uses the WABAC to go back in time to impress a girl, they travel through the ages and get in trouble, and before we know it, there’s a rip in the space-time continuum and history starts literally raining down from the skies of New York.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is slight, but it’s exceedingly charming, making good use of a talented voice cast that includes Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Mel Brooks as Freud, and Stanley Tucci as Leonardo Da Vinci. (And I’m always happy to hear Patrick Warburton, whose Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove is still the greatest vocal performance ever in an animated film.) Even the obligatory emotional stuff works reasonably well: One montage goes progressively further back in time as Peabody flashes back to Sherman’s early years, part of the joke being that he’s also flashing back through history as he does so; at one point, we see Baby Sherman and Baby Moses together in the waters of the Nile.
But at times, it’s hard not to wonder who this movie is for. Kids today are pretty sharp, but you have to ask yourself how far a film can go with high-level pun-based humor (see the edict example, above) and jokes about Agamemnon and Oedipus or even time-space continuum gags until the young ones are squirming in their seats. The film’s finale, heavy on the effects and the anachronistic gags, seems to partly acknowledge this by not trying too hard to make all the time-travel jokes make sense: It’s all mostly gobbledygook; but again, it takes being a certain age to understand that it is gobbledygook and not to get confused. Most kids’ movies today have to appeal to adults to some degree as well, in order to become genuine hits. And so, they toss adults a bone here and there: an edgy joke or two above the kids’ heads, or hidden emotional subtexts that resonate with parents. The best ones, of course, manage to give us lenticular gags that work one way for kids and another way for adults; The LEGO Movie is supernaturally good at this. Mr. Peabody & Sherman feels at times like the opposite of other animated films: As I chuckled and grinned my way through it, I started to wonder when it was going to throw the kids a bone.