He's the other bow-tie-wearing time traveler, but he predates even the original 1960s incarnation of Doctor Who. Mr. Peabody and his son, Sherman, first appeared in the late 1950s in segments on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and in what one can only imagine is Hollywood desperation to find some previously unmined existing material, they have finally gotten their own feature-length cartoon.
Fortunately, no one involved took the easy way out: They made a movie that is wonderfully, sweetly geeky, full of charm and authentic humor that will delight the little ones but won't make grownups want to poke their eyes out. In fact, Mr. Peabody & Sherman features one of the best balances between two opposing forces that I've ever seen. For when Sherman, who is only 71/2, after all, cracks a poop joke, Peabody rolls his eyes at the boy in appropriate parental disapproval. Brilliant!
Mr. Peabody (the voice of Ty Burrell) is kind of like Buckaroo Banzai: genius inventor, scientist, musician, athlete, gourmet, mixologist. He's a gentleman and a scholar. Oh, and he's a dog. In a move that represents how deeply nerdy a flick this is, there's a great deal of explanation for how a dog was allowed to adopt a human boy; precedent-busting court cases were involved. Which we learn because poor Sherman (Max Charles) has gotten into a fight at school with mean-girl Penny (Ariel Winter), and now social services is in the mix.
What's so perfectly plausible that it requires no explanation? Time travel. Peabody's invention of the WABAC (pronounced "way back") machine gets in the way during a dinnertime makeup get-together with Penny and her parents at Peabody and Sherman's house. Sherman and Penny take a quick jaunt, and that causes some disturbances in the timestreams that Peabody must repair. So off the three of them go again, into the distant past ...
Ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy are but two of the places to which we are whisked away, with good-natured silliness and tons of glorious bad puns. These are the sorts of goofy yet intriguing adventures that could well inspire kiddie curiosity; I know 8-year-old me would have run happily to the library to find out more about the likes of King Tut and Leonardo Da Vinci (whom we meet here).
But the marvelous script by veteran TV writer Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under) isn't only silly. Names from Gandhi's to Stephen Hawking's are dropped in clever ways, and the film even explores the concept of the uncanny valley — how we get weirded out by replicas of humanity, as in "realistic" CGI animations, that aren't quite perfect enough — without calling it such, in a running joke of Da Vinci's invention of a mechanical child.
Director Rob Minkoff has a checkered cinematic past: His The Forbidden Kingdom is a cheeky action fantasy; his The Haunted Mansion is a horror in the way it shouldn't be. But Minkoff also gave us the lovely part-animated Stuart Little movies. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is closest in tone to them: cute and kind and absolutely cheer-worthy in their delightfulness.