Animated films have seen their share of uptight dads — the most memorable being merman Triton and his strict rule over daughter Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” and the over-protective caveman Grug in the prehistoric journey “The Croods.” Mr. Peabody the dog in the charming “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is no different.
As the aforementioned papas learned, this overbearing beagle must eventually loosen the leash he has on his adopted son, Sherman. But this is especially difficult for Mr. Peabody, since Sherman is not only a lively youngster, but a human one.
Heartfelt and snappy, DreamWorks Animation’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” follows the wild adventures that bond a dog and his boy. Within the first few moments, we discover Mr. Peabody (voiced by a tenacious and loveable Ty Burrell) is a pseudo-intellectual dog who attended Harvard. Meticulous and reserved, Mr. Peabody’s success has earned him an impressive penthouse in New York City and the consent to adopt Sherman (voiced by child actor Max Charles of ABC’s “The Neighbors”), who he found abandoned in a cardboard box as a baby.
Like last year’s wacky, yet underwhelming “Free Birds,” this animated feature features time-travel. Luckily, “Peabody & Sherman” offers a tighter plot and adorably geeky dialogue, thanks to writer Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under”). Via a time-machine he’s invented, papa Peabody has enriched Sherman’s upbringing with visits to past eras and the benchmark events within them — like Vincent van Gogh’s creation of “The Starry Night.”
Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, Mr. Peabody and Sherman first appeared in “Peabody’s Improbable History,” a segment within the animated television series “Rocky and His Friends” and later “The Bullwinkle Show.” The latest film modernizes the duo’s story, time-machine still included, into a 3-D jaunt.
Now in elementary school, Sherman, a cute kid with wild red hair and huge glasses, is curious and frisky. On his first day of class, a brainy blonde named Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter of “Modern Family”) starts a fight with Sherman when he challenges her knowledge of George Washington, who he’s actually met in his time travels.
Despite the aptitude of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, we never really get another glimpse of Penny’s intelligence, even as she becomes a central character. Instead, she’s mostly obnoxious and when Sherman takes her for a ride on the time machine, she leads him to be disobedient. But she also encourages him to be a risk-taker, fostering his individuality and that of the little ones watching. It’s here that Mr. Peabody learns a thing or two about parenting. He must remain in control, while allowing Sherman to make mistakes.
As Mr. Peabody and Sherman visit ancient Egypt, the French Revolution and the Trojan War, historical tidbits unfold in cunning ways. However, aspects of their adventures, like Leonardo da Vinci’s weird robot baby invention, are often too loony. But the story, with additional voices by Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann and Allison Janney, does have the ability to inspire kids’ curiosity about historical benchmarks. And though a few corny jokes may go over their heads — “Perhaps I’m an old Giza,” Mr. Peabody says after leaving Egypt — jabs at Spartacus and Bill Clinton will make adults giggle.
Directed by Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King,” “Stuart Little”) and with Jason Schleifer ( “Megamind”) as the head of character animation, the visuals are stylish and clean. But the 3-D effect is unnecessary. Danny Elfman, whose credits include “Big Fish” and 14 Tim Burton films, crafts a score that’s sprightly and sentimental. The most touching moments come during montages of Mr. Peabody and Sherman playing sports.
The kiddie film is a big wet kiss for dogs and dog lovers that champions loyalty and bravery as not only traits of canines, but as universal attributes.
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” a Fox release, is rated PG for “some mild action and brief rude humor.” Running time: 92 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.