Mister Peabody is the world's smartest dog, but even though he is an inventor, genius, scientist, nobel-prize winner, gourmet cook and Olympic medalist, he has not quite mastered his biggest challenge: being a parent. His adopted son Sherman has the luxury of having a canine dad who travels with him in a time machine to experience history first-hand, but when Sherman is being bullied by a girl named Penny at school, he gets in trouble despite Mr. Peabody's meticulous parenting. The authorities threaten to take Sherman away from him, although he hopes to win the girl's parents over by an evening of cultured conversation and food before his and Sherman's home is inspected by the ferocious Mrs. Grunion. But the whole effort threatens to go awry when Sherman sneaks the curious Penny in the time machine and leaves her in ancient Egypt...
Dusting off classic children's television series for a remake seems to be one of Hollywood's favourite pastimes, which sometimes works well and sometimes ends in results better left forgotten. One of the more frequent victims of this obsession was The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, an animated children's television program, which only aired from 1959 to 1964. Thanks to its diverse variety format with several different cartoon shows linked by the adventures of the title characters, it became very popular through many reruns despite it's relatively short original lifespan, but attempts to make new episodes never came to fruition and remakes of several sections like Boris and Natasha, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right were no match for the original and weak efforts at best.
One part of the show had, however, never been considered for a remake, although it was one of its most popular elements - Peabody's Improbable History were the time-travelling adventures of an intelligent dog and his adopted son in an attempt to bring a bit of education in a zany and chaotic way into the series. In only two of the little more than four years of the cartoon show's initial broadcast the duo visited 91 historical locations and personalities with most of them of course being portrayed as funny parodies. The segments, created by cartoonist Ted Kay with very simple animation, were only about five minutes long each, but provided many opportunities to lampoon history often in ways which today would sometimes be very politically incorrect. Mister Peabody and Sherman still became something which not every member of their genre can call themselves: a piece of pop culture.
Maybe due to its short and very direct-to-the-point format, Peabody's Improbably History was never a huge candidate for a new adaptation, but there was one filmmaker who had always been a big fan of the series and had long tried to make it fit for the big screen: Rob Minkoff, who had started his career as an animator at Disney in the 1980s and later directed the Lion King, one of the biggest successes of the studio, before branching off into live action combined with CGI in the late 1990s with the Stuart Little franchise and then going on to direct several other movies. His idea of bringing Peabody and Sherman to the big screen began all the way at the end of the 1990s when his production partner Jason Clark suggested dusting of the beloved pair of time travelers. For Rob Minkoff, it would be full circle back to the beginning of his directing career since he had not directed a fully animated movie since The Lion King.
The actual format of a proposed movie adaptation was, however, a long time in limbo while Rob Minkoff and Jason Clark were looking for investors. The first step was to reach out to Tiffany Ward, the daughter of Rocky & Bullwinkle producer Jay Ward, to make sure they not only had the rights, but also the trust of the owners, which reportedly was not easy. In the end, Rob Minkoff's own love and enthusiasm for Peabody's Improbably History won Ward over and even before a slngle script line was written, they formed an informal alliance to resurrect Peabody and Sherman. Based on the experience of the Stuart Little movies, the first approach was to use a combination of live-action and CGI or even traditional 2D animation, but with computer-animated movies completely taking over the genre in the early 2000s, the decision was made to steer the project into this direction.
Looking for the right home for the production was also not easy because not all studios were open to outside projects. Originally, Rob Minkoff and Jason Clark wanted to co-produce the movie with their own company Sprocketdyne under the umbrella of Sony Pictures and the newly-formed Bullwinkle Studios, who control the rights to the characters. But apart from some early press releases in 2003, nothing much was heard again until three years later, when Dreamworks Animation announced that the project would be coming to their studio soon - apparently thanks to the friendship between Rob Minkoff and studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg, who had closely worked together a decade previously on The Lion King at Disney.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman were the ideal choice for Dreamworks Animation, a studio which had always encouraged both adaptations and original creations and never closed its ranks as tightly as Pixar and Disney, who rarely allowed directors and writers from outside the studio to join. At the time the project came to Dreamworks there was no script or even a screenwriter attached and it still took Rob Minkoff some years to get the first movie adaptation of Peabody's Improbably History properly going. The first couple of script drafts had to be abandoned after the original writer became unavailable and the project probably went through some other authors before settling on Craig Wright as the principal writer. Although he had never worked in movies before and only on high-profile television series, the playwright was mainly known for his award-winning theater work, making him a surprising, but understandable choice for a movie that had to be written completely from the ground up.
Transforming a television series of 91 episodes each barely five minutes long into a feature film might have been impossible if it wasn't for the underlying concept of time travel - of course the movie had to be a time travel adventure. At the beginning, there was some uncertainty if Mr. Peabody and Sherman would be visiting only one time period or several, but some favourites were easily identified and boiled down to a manageable. Another problem was that no real character development ever happened in the original series, but the filmmakers asked themselves if a dog could be a good parent to a human, so the story was also equipped carefully with a father-son angle and revolved about Sherman's quite usual problems in his first days of school, which were used as the beginning of the actual plot.
Craig Wright's screenplay, to which Michael McCullough, Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon also later contributed, managed to perfectly stay true to the original while carefully bringing Sherman and Mister Peabody into the 21st century. Especially the element of time travel was much advanced because the famous WABAC machine was originally just a room full of then-futuristic electronic equipment and a simple door to access the time periods. Ideas like paradoxes were completely absent and the time machine was even made into a should-have-been machine, explaining the crazy way the historical personalities behave. This was completely abandoned in favour of a modern time travel concept complete with a sleek flying time machine going through wormholes in time and space, not quite unlike in a certain other British television series.
The story takes, of course, the well-explored route of what can go wrong with time travel, something that was never a part of the original series, but became simply necessary for the movie. The historical eras visited by the protagonists were a good choice, but not the most obvious ones - the French Revolution serves as a successful introduction, Ancient Egypt and the Trojan War provide the story with plenty of characters and action-sequence opportunities and Italy serves as light-hearted diversion in the middle of the story. The script is actually quite episodic, but not too fractured to seem like a couple of short films stitched together - the pacing is just right to leave the viewer some time to breathe, although the finale may be a bit too confusing for the youngest audience.
Mr. Peabody and his son Sherman were also upgraded from fairly one-dimensional into real characters, but at heart they still remained the same as in the original. Mr. Peabody is still the genius, charming and slightly smart-alecky beagle who knows and can accomplish almost anything save, maybe, from being the perfect father he wants to be. In contrast, Sherman is just your easily excitable seven-year-old boy, who may have the advantage of being slightly more clever than his peers because of his fathers special sort of education, but in the end he is just a perfectly normal kid. Making part of the plot a father-son-story could have brought the movie deep into kitschy Disney territory, but since this is Dreamworks the script manages to circumvent the most obvious clichés and even manages to insert an underlying theme of xenophobia and racism in regard of the dog-human parentage. While Mr Peabody actually treats Sherman more like a pet than a child in the original series, their relationship in the movie is portrayed in a wonderfully funny and affectionate way with a dash of carefully balanced emotion.
Being the only characters in the original series except those who they are visiting, the movie had no choice other than creating some more to populate the story. Creating a similar-aged companion for Sherman was essential and at first it was another boy at his side before the filmmakers settled on what later became his schoolmate Penny Peterson, who starts out as a mean bully before becoming Sherman's friend and ally, making him further independent from Mr. Peabody. The canine genius also has his own adversaries in the form of Penny's stuck-up, nouveau-riches parents, the school principal and the only real antagonist of the plot, the overbearing and slightly monsterous Mrs Grunion threatening to take Sherman away from him.
The plot does a short plundering tour through history and comes up with some great characters, all of which are, of course, not really historically correct, but are portrayed much more in the zany and playful way of the old cartoon series. Marie Antoinette and Robespierre are the wildest parodies, but the young King Tut and his court are actually less funny than genuinely interesting, while King Agamemmnon is a wonderfully overexaggerated cartoon figure equivalent of a big hunk of hero with more muscle than brains. Including Leonardo Da Vinci in the list of destinations was probably unavoidable since Mr. Peabody seems to be partly modeled on him - therefore, it comes to no great surprise that they actually know each other and that the Italian inventor and painter is not being fazed at all by their arrival. Those main protagonists are joined in the big finale by a lot more, although those are only appearing in short, but enormously funny cameo appearances.
Half the fun is, like in every animated movie, in the voices, which were chosen with the usual Dreamworks finesse. There was no way around recasting the title characters, because their original voice actors Bill Scott and Walter Tetley passed away in 1985 and 1975, but this was not a simple case of putting some random celebrity in a sound studio and actually developed into the exact difference. Originally, Robert Downey had been cast as the voice of Mr. Peabody, but when he became increasingly unavailable because of his many other projects, the filmmakers made the difficult decision to replace him - something which happens only very rarely on Dreamworks projects and must have been the absolute last resort.
Replacing the lead actor did not sit well with the studio and especially Tiffany Ward, who kept a close eye on the production and was disappointed by the loss of a big name in the voice cast. Director Rob Minkoff's alternative was also met with skepticism: television actor Ty Burrell was not particularly famous when he was chosen in 2012, but he managed to convince Tiffany Ward with an audition proving that he could not just imitate Bill Scott, but really embody the character. On the surface, Ty Burrell, who made his name during the production of the movie as a member of the ensemble cast of The Modern Family, actually sounds a lot like the Mr. Peabody of the late 1950s and 1960s, but listening closer there is a lot more subtlety and emotion under the lovely dry and almost old-fashioned bow-tie wearing image of the clever beagle.
In the original cartoon series, the seven-year-old Sherman was never actually voiced by a child actor, but by children impersonator Walter Tetley, who had made a career out of his high-pitched voice since the days of radio comedy in the 1940s and was a regular on all sorts of cartoon shows. But nowadays the approach to cast a cartoon schoolkid is simply to get a young actor like Max Charles, who was born in 2003 and must have been about eight or nine when his dialogue was recorded. He certainly was the perfect choice, because he delivers his lines in a refreshingly natural way without appearing artificial or forced at all. When excited, he sometimes slightly slurs his words and otherwise he just sounds like a completely normal kid, which may be because of his long time experience in front of television and film cameras like in the TV series The Neighbours, but that does not seem to have spoiled him at all.
Sherman's erstwhile nemesis and later friend Penny was also not cast with a particularly well-known Hollywood actress, but with Ariel Winter, one of the co-stars of Ty Burrell from the sitcom Modern Family. The actress is a couple of years older than her colleague Max Charles, but still manages to capture her inner child wonderfully for her role, which required her to first be a really mean bully and then later switch to being just an excited schoolgirl with the same bubbly enthusiasm as Sherman. Penny's parents Patty and Paul are limited to only a couple of scenes, but have also been cast perfectly with comedian Lesley Mann and satirical talkmaster Stephen Colbert, both with previous animation experience and in the case of Colbert, even a bigger role in the previous Dreamworks movie Monsters vs. Aliens.
The further voice choices reveal the quirkiness of the Dreamworks casting department, who are never shy of making odd, yet perfect decisions like the ubiquitous Steven Tobolowsky as the school principal, the wonderfully overbearing Allison Janney as Mrs. Grunion, a very funny Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci and the brilliantly growling Patrick Warburton as Agamemmnon. The british actress Leila Birch can also be heard as the computerized voice of the WABAC machine in an homage to Majel Barret-Roddenberry who was the voice of the computer systems in many Star Trek series. Shorter cameos also include actresses Lake Bell as Mona Lisa and Lauri Fraser as Marie Antoinette while Guillaume Aretos, Dreamworks production designer, took the slightly bigger role of Robespierre. The one little appearance that really stands out was, however, comedian Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein, who gets the biggest laugh in the finale of the movie.
The character animation is a successful exercise how to bring two-dimensional drawings into the third dimension and thankfully not a hyper-real, nightmarish adaptation like The Adventures of Tintin. Mr. Peabody retains all that what made him such an iconic cartoon character: his shape is still broadly the same and modelling him in 3D works oddly well, mainly because the animators have resisted making him too much of a real dog and kept him relatively abstract. He displays some, but not too much detailed fur and, of course, still has his famous glasses and the inevitable red bowtie, without which he would just have been another dog. His facial expressions are actually still quite limited, but with eyes, eyebrows and a decidedly un-doglike mouth he is always delightful to watch and often full of surprises.
Sherman also still has the same basic looks - white shirt, black trousers, big round glasses and an unruly shock of red hair - but his facial design was translated to that of the typical Dreamworks cartoon style tried and tested in many of the studio's previous movies. Like most other children in this movie, he does have the comically oversized head from the original cartoon, but this works well with the proportions of Mr. Peabody himself, who is just a bit smaller than his adopted son. The animators have made no particular effort to make Sherman and Penny look too real, but the 3D cartoon style works perfectly, bringing the characters to life in their very own way.
The adult characters of the movie are noticeably more geared towards a caricartured look than in previous Dreamworks movies, mainly to emphasize the different historical periods, but also to match the style of the original series to a certain degree. Over- and undersized noses, chins and eyes are the norm here and while most characters adhere to a basic design, the variety of different faces all over the movie is astonishing and a great testament to the creativity of the designer team. Penny's parents are about the only ones with a really generic design while most historical characters look unique with some common traits shared in their own period.
While the characters are certainly the highlight of the movie, the scenery and animation is what brings Mr Peabody & Sherman fully to life. Starting with a wonderfully rendered present-day New York including the intricatly designed retro-modern rooftop apartment of the heroes, production designer David James has successfully brought the time of the French Revolution, Ancient Egypt, the Renaissance and the Trojan War to life with a design effort that almost looks so casual that it's easily forgettable this is all digital work. The time periods may not be one hundred percent correct, but since this has never been the aim of the original series, the scenery design is, like the characters, somewhat exaggerated and skewed - but everything looks nevertheless stunningly gorgeous. While everything looks surprisingly realistic, some cartoonish elements are always around so the characters do not look too much out of place.
Time travel itself was never shown in Peabody's Improbably History, with the protagonists just entering a door - but that would have been to easy on the big screen, so the filmmakers pulled out all the stops to completely go to town on the science-fiction genre. The WABAC machine is now a huge red sphere which does not only travel through wormholes in the space-time continuum, but can also fly everywhere and even cloak itself - it's not only a time machine, but also an aeroplane and spaceship! The look itself is not entirely original and partly seems to be derived from the round starship Heart of Gold from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy movie adaptation, but the designers had even more fun with the interoir. While the capsule is almost bare inside, a playful virtual user interface with elements just popping up in thin air is the main humourous attraction of the brand-new WABAC machine.
Embedded in the story are the usual action sequences ranging from chasing over flying and fighting to time travel through wormholes (and accidentally almost through a black hole), but the movie never feels like they are the sole reason for its existence. Some of the sequences feel like they have been done before, like the sewer chase in revolutionary France reminding of Flushed Away or Sherman and Penny absconding in one of Leonardo's flying machines in a nod to How To Train Your Dragon. They have not been just randomly inserted into the plot - something even Dreamworks is sometimes guilty of - but keep the story literally running along. They also have one thing in common - they are all tremendously exciting to watch and the movie would be only half as fun without them.
The movie manages to squeeze a surprising amount of plot into a runtime of only about eighty minutes and while the pace is certainly quick, it never becomes too hectic and is balanced very well between action and dialogue. The script is quite finely tuned and like every Dreamworks movie has its humour working on two different levels for younger and older viewers. There is a fair amount of cartoon slapstick, but there is also a lot of dialogue filled with clever humour and a lot of references that will sail right past the younger audience in the direction of adults who have more historical knowledge. Not all of the gags really work well, but most of them are brilliant and there are even some moments of self-referential humour in which the characters themselves become aware of the quality of their jokes. Because the very first scene is a recreation of the first episode from Mr. Peabody's Improbably History, the protagonists even break the fourth wall talking directly to the audience for a moment.
Musically, Mr. Peabody & Sherman has to offer the biggest coup in the history of Dreamworks, because the score was not written by a member of Hans Zimmer's MediaVentures composers, but by none other than Danny Elfman, Tim Burton's long-time collaborator. The composer had worked on animated movies before, most notably on The Nightmare before Christmas, but never actually for either Dreamworld or Pixar and had only recently been recruited by BlueSky for Epic. His debut for Dreamworks is one of his most surprising scores in a long time, exchanging his usual moody rhythms for much more lighthearted melodies while not giving up his trademark style. This is less Batman and Dark Shadows than Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a wonderful title theme and a lot of creativity in each time period. The instrumentation and arrangements are not too heavy on the typical Elfman brass and surprise with a lot of gentle and often funny sounds, making the score an absolutely indespensable part of the movie.
The typical Dreamworks penchant for injecting a multitude pop songs in their animated features is not as conspicuous in Mr. Peabody & Sherman as in their other movies and basically limited to just one scene: a lovingly detailed montage of Sherman growing up with Mr. Peabody was scored with John Lennon's gentle ballad Beautiful Boy, for which the filmmakers were thankfully able to license the original recording and not a sound-alike, making the scene a really special moment in the movie. Apart from Mr. Peabody's almost surreal musical exploits in an isolated cartoon-strip like sequence, the rest of the movie is pure Danny Elfman.The closing credits begin with the uncannily matching, but independently written Way Back When from the relatively unknown newcomer band Grizfolk, continuing the whimsical atmosphere of the story. In the European versions of the movie, this is followed by Peter Andre's rockabilly-like Kid, recorded newly for the movie - both songs are essentially fine, but suffer from somewhat weak middle parts and end much too abruptly, leaving the viewer wanting for the songwriting genius of Danny Elfman himself.
With Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Rob Minkoff not only fulfilled his personal dream of bringing his favourite classic cartoon series to the big screen, but also created one of the best time-travel science-fiction movies in recent time. The rescue of the movie from a more than decade-long development hell by Dreamworks was really fortuitous and the involvement of Jay Ward's daughter and the Bullwinkle Studios ensured that the production stayed true to the original, which it absolutely ended up to be despite the many necessary additions to the small universe of Peabody's Improbable History. The successful mix of the old-fashioned cartoon show with Dreamworks' own quirky style was a match that could not have been better.
While most critics were very favourable towards Mr. Peabody & Sherman and especially praised the playfulness of the story going all the way back to the original cartoon series, American audiences were far more sceptical. While the boxoffice results were initially good after the North American March 2014 premiere with an above average opening weekend, the movie only managed to take 111 Million Dollars in the USA and 161 Million in Foreign markets, making it the third financial loss in two years for the studio which reportedly had to take a 57 Million Dollar writedown on the movie.
This was not as problematic as the financial debacle of Rise of the Guardians thanks to the successful June release of How to Train Your Dragon 2 three months later, but Mr. Peabody & Sherman's high production costs of 145 Million Dollars certainly contributed to the loss, which would have looked entirely different if the movie had cost only two thirds of its price. Sadly, the announced Rocky & Bullwinkle short, which originally was to be shown before the movie in the theaters, was postopned and later was only included on some of the home video releases.
Despite being nominally a financial failure, Mr. Peabody & Sherman is still a great success as a movie itself and especially as an adaptation of a classic cartoon series - the movie easily puts itself on the same level as other light-hearted time travel adventures like Time Bandits, Back to the Future and maybe even Doctor Who. This is time travel done right in the shape of a great comedic adventure with likeable characters, strong storytelling, wonderful voices and playful visuals - it's simply a lot of fun following the exploits of Mr. Peabody and his adopted son Sherman. Because of the low financial success, there probably will not be a sequel, but there are rumours about a coming television series, perhaps signalling the return of the time travelers to their original medium.
Since last year, the cinema and home video distribution of Dreamworks Animation changed from Paramount to 20th Century Fox and while the quality itself has been consistent even on their DVD releases, there has a sharp downturn in the extras department. Sadly, Fox seems to have abolished the Audio Commentaries and the DVD editions of their first three Dreamworks releases including Mr. Peabody & Sherman have also been scrubbed of some extras compared to the Blu-Ray.
The disc reviewed in this article is the German DVD release of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, simply because it was the first one to hit the markets worldwide and the cheapest alternative for me save for the Blu-Ray, which I still have no use for. As indicated above, image and sound are absolutely top notch, but there's a sad big hole where the extras should be. The British home video release is on October 6th with the American date following on October 14th.