Even though it first aired on TV more than half a century ago, “Peabody’s Improbable History” still feels a little ahead of its time. The cartoon adventures of time-traveling brainiac dog Mr. Peabody (that’s pronounced pea-BODY, locals) and his adopted human son, Sherman, had the same clever tone of everything that came out of animation producer Jay Ward’s “Rocky & Bullwinkle” factory. Scripts were gleefully filled with Mr. Peabody’s knowingly bad puns. Casually boasting of his many remarkable achievements, he’d note that he’d been dubbed, yep, the Wolf of Wall Street. The unusual adoption theme was handled matter-of-factly.
This was solid material for creating the DreamWorks feature update “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” Don’t dumb things down, stick to character, give the duo’s WABAC machine a flashy, 3-D animated rebuild, and you’ve got your movie. And director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”) does follow this blueprint to some extent. (Among the slyest wordplay: “This is a little homespun concoction I like to call Einstein on the Beach.”) But the filmmakers also try to lend the story some emotional elements that they clearly feel a movie demands. Not always true.
Early on, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell, well cast) and geeky Sherman (Max Charles, TV’s “The Neighbors”) go field-tripping to the eve of the French Revolution. But there’s barely time for a bite of cake with Marie Antoinette before they’ve got to get back for Sherman’s first day of school. You’d think Sherman’s living-history factoids might prove useful, but instead, they earn him the bullying envy of Penny (Ariel Winter, Burrell’s “Modern Family” daughter). Cue lunchroom fighting, report filing, a threat from a mean old social services caseworker (Allison Janney) to take Sherman away, and plenty of kiddie-movie angst. OK . . . but how about more adventure? Penny’s recurring taunt that Sherman is “a dog” is also uncomfortably odd. If Ward’s ’60s original could be species-blind, is this really being 21st-century progressive? And do we need a dose of reality in a talking-pooch cartoon?
Happily, the fallout results in Peabody, Sherman, and Penny all getting caught up in WABAC-machine zaniness together. In the film’s sharpest visual sequence, they land in ancient Egypt, with the filmmakers entertainingly cribbing from “Indiana Jones” and “The Wizard of Oz” to get them out of tight spots. (We also get a “denial” pun, naturally.) On other stops, they check in on da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) and his exasperated attempts to have Mona Lisa get that puss off her face, and they look inside the Trojan Horse with a WWE-intense Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton). It’s all a lot of fun, and a reminder that Ward’s crew knew — even way back then — just what tone this dog-and-his-boy story would always need.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.