In an early episode of the Adult Swim series Sealab 2021, Stormy and Dr. Quinn find themselves in a time-rip loop. Each jump back 15 minutes in time leads to a new pair of distorted alternate Stormy and Quinns, each more hopelessly idiotic than the last. In point of comparison (or, rather, in pointed comparison), Mr. Peabody & Sherman spent roughly a dozen years in development, and the moronic, corporate detritus from that long time warp is strewn about like so many improbable history lessons. Directed by Rob Minkoff (who hasn’t helmed a fully animated feature since The Lion King 20 years ago), the movie thrusts a pair of third-string supporting players from Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle universe awkwardly into the present day. Adult audiences will recall Mr. Peabody as not just the smartest dog in the world, but the first earthling to crack the science between time travel. He also dotes over the pedagogic, if not necessarily emotional, upbringing of his adopted human “son” Sherman, who he discovered as a baby one rainy night in an alley.
Ward’s cartoons reveled in irony, and they poked holes in propriety, which is one reason they held their spell over the first wave of post-baby boomers in reruns. There was nothing insipid about the relationship between Peabody and Sherman. In fact, their affiliation was frequently jaded and antagonistic, just as their tongue-in-cheek history-lesson segments were irreverently loose with facts and figures, casting understandable aspersions on the entertainment industry’s ability to serve as an educational tool. But the 2014 Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell with just the right amount of haughtiness) is practically an evangelist for the full audio-visual experience, risking any number of Doc Brown paradoxes instead of trusting his charge with, oh, reading a book. Consequently, poor home-schooled Sherman doesn’t have a prayer when he’s forced to interact with his own kind at a snooty private academy, where he’s bullied by a dead ringer for Brittany Chipette. Sherman bites the girl, instantly putting a relentlessly stern social worker on Peabody’s scent.
Recasting Peabody and Sherman as potential martyrs persecuted by those espousing traditional views on acceptable family structures instantly dates the entire movie as a product of its time, one hardly lessened by a number of anachronistic “Don’t taze me bro” pop-culture references from inside Agamemnon’s Trojan Horse. (A sight gag showing troops being expelled from just under the horse’s tail more or less defines the movie’s level of visual sophistication.) But, in an odd way, this time-travel adventure is more obviously a victim of its release-date proximity to another era-straddling kids’ movie, whose deftness in balancing the entertainment prerequisites of today’s kids with the tongue-in-cheek nostalgia only their parents will appreciate makes Mr. Peabody & Sherman look desperate. If only Peabody’d had the foresight to build his time machine out of LEGOs.