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As a child, I got at least some of my introduction to antiquity from Mr. Peabody—the highly intelligent hound from Peabody’s Improbable History. Admittedly it wasn’t the most accurate retelling of facts and probably didn’t help when it came to a history test, but it was fun!
In the animated shorts from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, the incredibly smart beagle and his adopted human Sherman travel in their WABAC (pronounced “way-back”). The time travel machine allowed them to meet famous faces, attend historical events and right wrongs from the past.
In 2014, Mr. Peabody and Sherman (voices of Ty Burrell and Max Charles) are back in an updated, big screen version of the story aimed at a new generation. (Still, the genius inventor insists the child call him by his name rather than Dad.) The orphaned boy has grown up in the quintessential home-schooled environment with field trips that are literally out of this world. Now Sherman is heading off for his first day of class at a private institution where some of the students don’t take kindly to the well-traveled know-it-all.
When Sherman dares to cross paths with his classmate Penny (voice of Ariel Winter), this mean girl reacts by bullying the boy until he resorts to biting her. That brings down the wrath of the state-appointed social worker (voice of Allison Janney) who vows to have Sherman removed from Mr. Peabody’s care. To smooth things over, Mr. Peabody prepares a gourmet meal and invites Penny and her parents (voices of Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) to dinner. But while the dog impresses the parents with his extraordinary bartending skills, Sherman and Penny take an unsupervised excursion in the time machine. And that sets in motion a series of side trips to the Trojan War, ancient Egypt and the Italian Renaissance for a joy ride in Leonardo da Vinci’s experimental flying machine.
When it comes to the father/son relationship, this movie attempts to make a break from the usual stereotypical bonding. Yet that doesn’t mean the rest of the film isn’t full of the conventions like the nasty social worker, an ineffective principal and helicopter parents. Even Sherman’s nerdy friends from school are characters we’re more than familiar with. The script does try to steer clear of a lot of other content concerns that might keep parents from buying movie tickets. (Violence will likely be the biggest issue with depictions of a guillotine, Taser attacks and repeated scenes of sword use.)
This screwball peek at history pits the value of book learning against hands-on experience as it introduces famous figures from the past. It also suggests, at least in the case of childrearing, you can teach an old dog new tricks. For most young viewers this message will be totally lost. And that’s okay. Much like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this film isn’t so much about history as it is about how entertaining history can be—with the right narrator of course.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman is rated PG: for some mild action and brief rude humor.
Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Allison Janney, Ty Burrell, Stephen Colbert, Max Charles
Studio: 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Website: Official site for Mr. Peabody & Sherman.