The idea to bring television cartoons to the big screen is nothing new. Some efforts like Casper, Popeye and Spongebob Squarepants have been able to transition to a cinematic level and expand the story, but there have been many other efforts (Yogi Bear, Speed Racer, Avatar: The Last Airbender, etc…) that might have also proven that cartoons may not make the best source material for movies.
I think that the problem is that the studios behind those kinds of movies assume that children will watch anything, so they’ll rush the project out in theaters without regard in how to use the original material to their advantage.
Now Rocky and Bullwinkle is another cartoon that people have tried to adapt before. The less said about the Boris and Natasha movie, the better. Dudley Do-Right was just okay as was The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle movie.
All these projects prove that the famous Jay Ward cartoons just simply don’t translate well into live action. Going into Peabody’s Improbable History, I’ll say right now that even though I saw these shows as a child, this was never my favorite segment. I found it kind of boring and existing just for educational purposes. But I gave it another view, and the writing is actually very funny. So how does a three-minute sketch translate into the feature length Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie?
We start off with Mr. Peabody (played by Ty Burrell) as a puppy who nobody wanted because he was too sarcastic. So he spent his life going into academic research and becoming the most intelligent dog in the world, winning several Nobel prizes and inventing.
He takes on his biggest challenge…raising a son. He finds a baby named Sherman and goes through an interesting court case with the idea that “if a boy can adopt a dog, then a dog should be able to adopt a boy.”
If you have watched the cartoons, then you know that Peabody invented a time machine called The WABAC and uses it to educate his son and occasionally help out with history’s biggest names.
Sherman’s first day of school ends up with him getting in fight with a girl named Penny (played by Ariel Winter). This causes the school to call Social Services where an agent Grunion threatens to take away Sherman should something like this happen again.
Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her family over to make amends which leads into her discovering The WABAC and getting stuck in Ancient Egypt. Peabody and Sherman rescue her, but also may have started a domino effect that could put the space-time continuum in danger.
Unlike the other Rocky and Bullwinkle adaptations, this one was computer-animated at DreamWorks. And like their other movies, the movie looks great. It updates the look of the characters and environment while keeping true to the original cartoon. The CGI allows us to see the home of our heroes (a nice penthouse in New York City) and the actual time machine.
The days of pulling some knobs and going through a door is over.
Judging from the other efforts, Mr. Peabody and Sherman is the best of the Jay Ward television-to-screen projects. Along with Mr. Peabody’s smarts and wit (thanks to a great performance from Ty Burrell), the story has an emotional arc that gives the movie a nice father/son plot that surprised me. And if the story wasn’t enough, it’s educational.
The only problem I had was with Penny, not that she’s a bad character, but I feel like they gave her a big part just to try and get a girl audience. And though they play around with time travel, the third act gets very complicated and most likely too smart for its own good.
I’ll give this four WABAC time machines out of five. Though I liked the movie more than I expected, I wouldn’t necessarily send adults out on their own to see this like I did for The Lego Movie. This movie is mostly for kids and fans of the original cartoons.
Robert T. Nickerson is a film critic. His work can be seen at mastermindfilmproductions.com.