Before our very early screening of “Mr. Peabody and Sherman,” the new 3D adaptation of the Jay Ward characters that originated on “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show,” director Rob Minkoff addressed the audience (comprised mostly of children). He told us that we were one of the first audiences to see the movie, then told a rambling story about the time he met Billy Wilder in the airport. At some point he revealed that this was his first animated feature since directing “The Lion King” for Disney in the early nineties. It was about the only time in his intro that the kids in the audience actually reacted. And once the movie started, one thing became very clear: “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is no “Lion King.”
The basics from the “Peabody’s Improbable History” sections of the beloved sixties cartoon are here, with Mr. Peabody (here voiced by sitcom star Ty Burell, who replaced Robert Downey, Jr. at some point during production), a genius talking dog who has conquered the metaphysical quandary of time travel (amongst his many other talents), and his human son (in the original cartoon, he was Mr. Peabody’s “pet”) Sherman (Max Charles), zipping through time to interact with famous historical figures. What’s sort of incredible is that there has been only a nominal amount of work done to flesh out the story more and make into a cohesive narrative. The original cartoon featured brief vignettes, so they didn’t necessarily require an arc, much less emotional underpinnings, but both are required of a 92-minute feature and neither are delivered with much enthusiasm here.
Minkoff and screenwriter Craig Wright, a usually-excellent playwright, have devised a new character to act as something of a foil: Penny (Ariel Winter), a classmate of Sherman’s who cons him into showing her the time-traveling WABAC machine, and who ends up installing herself as a Cleopatra-type ruler in ancient Egypt. So it’s up to Mr. Peabody and Sherman to rescue Penny and set the space-time continuum right so that the universe isn’t irreparably damaged. Of course, their time machine goes on the fritz and they have to hang out with Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) for a little while and find themselves inside the Trojan Horse of Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) on the eve of the war. Then, for some reason, all of the historical figures come to New York, in a series of sequences that sometimes feel like a (rather joyless) shot-for-shot remake of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” (It should also be noted that Stephen Colbert has a supporting role as Penny’s father, but he is given so little to do that it’s almost a non-issue.)
Sure, it’s easy to see why, based on the plot description above and the full dimensional designs of the classic characters, people would think that the movie would be fun. But watching “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is an absolute drag, consisting of one chaotic sequence after another, and full of unimpressive animation that manages to be rubbery without ever actually being all that expressive. Plus, since this is a DreamWorks Animation movie, it’s stuffed to the gills with of-the-moment pop culture references that already seem hopelessly stale and dusty (references to “planking,” a character saying “Don’t tase me bro.”) and others that just feel incongruous in a movie about a talking, time-traveling dog. At one point John Lennon‘s “Beautiful Boy” (we wonder how much Jeffrey Katzenberg had to fork over for that one) is played over a montage of a young Sherman playing with Mr. Peabody. It’s supposed to add a dimension of emotion, but it comes across as hopelessly schmaltzy.
“Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is even more damnable coming so close after “The Lego Movie,” an animated feature that genuinely pushed the boundaries of the medium and that had the guts to actually say something. There’s a lot of lip service given to how horrible it would be if the time machine was misused, but there’s little in the way of examples as to what could happen, should things go awry. It’s a looming threat that’s never fully sketched out and therefore never feels genuine. And while we weren’t looking for some heady metaphysical deconstruction in a movie aimed to sell Happy Meals, it would have been nice to have someone (anyone) voice the moral concerns of this kind of power. There’s a callousness to how the time machine is used that makes such light-as-air fluff as “Back to the Feature” feel like a cautionary fable by comparison.
Most of the blame for how truly uninspired “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” is can be rested at the feet of Minkoff. He’s been attempting, with varying degrees of success, to adapt Jay Ward characters for an animated feature for more than a decade. After “The Lion King,” he was wooed by the allure of live action movies, directing a pair of partially animated “Stuart Little” movies for Sony, the godawful “Haunted Mansion” film for Disney, and the Jackie Chan fantasy “The Forbidden Kingdom.” (He also directed an indie thriller in 2011 called “Flypaper,” not that anyone noticed.) Despite his run of junky studio movies, Minkoff’s return to animation should have been something worth celebrating; “Lion King” is, after all, one of the greatest animated features of all time, and Minkoff’s ability to synthesize Broadway musical aesthetics with Shakespearean tragedy (all involving talking animals) was a genuinely impressive feat. But something happened along the way. He lost his mojo. The story he told before our screening was telling: he was more interested in sharing, with a room full of children, a story about the time Billy Wilder made a joke about his percentage of the “Lion King” box office than actually telling them something that they might actually find funny.
That’s what “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” really is: it’s the accumulation of a set of ideas that a bunch of creative types and executives think would be clever, instead of something that actually delivers on an engaging entertainment level. The movie is full of slack voice acting (slackting?), drab animation, a sleepy score by Danny Elfman and the kind of clumsy 3D effects that parents will be outraged to have spent the extra money on. If given the ability to time travel, the first thing we would probably do is go back in time and stop ourselves from seeing “Mr. Peabody and Sherman.” For a movie that never stops moving, its strangely inert. [C-]