“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is the latest postmodern revamp of a modern classic that delves deep into the psyches of characters that were never meant to be analyzed. The original animated TV show is already a pretty subversive treat. Originally broadcast from 1959 to 1964, it simply presents the adventures of a dog and his boy without question. This latest mashup of old and new, from DreamWorks, sets out to answer all those questions about this most unusual dog and boy relationship and turns out to be one sharp and funny movie.
It could have been enough to just have Mr. Peabody and Sherman travel back in time and get into trouble, and there is plenty of that to be found here. What is such a nice surprise is how well this movie stirs the emotions.
We’ve known CGI animation is up to the task since such hits as Pixar’s “Toy Store” and DreamWorks’ “Shrek.” DreamWorks taps into that uplifting magic here. And it goes one step further with this ambitious reworking of vintage TV. There’s such a long history of classic TV reboots that it’s become its own genre with clunkers like “The Flintstones” to more refined attempts like “Bewitched.” It became clear somewhere down the line that a earnest attempt to simply retell a classic would likely never quite work. An early uneven attempt at this is 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” We have come a long way since then.
To tackle a classic like “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” must have given some people pause. An exercise in excess can’t be obvious about its excess like, say, “Speed Racer.” The way to success hinges on the writing. You can thank the screenplay by Craig Wright for that. It’s tricky but it is possible to invest a sophisticated level of character development and psychology upon two characters previously known to frolick within the confines of a vintage animated TV series. That original was exceptional so that helps. What Wright does is build upon what is special about the two characters. Mr. Peabody is interesting for far more reasons than just being a supersmart dog. He also happens to struggle with expressing his emotions. Sherman is more than just a cute cuddly kid. He has issues about having a dog for a parent.
Just when you thought that rebooting vintage TV had run its course, this movie has the spark of originality. Works of classic literature or contemporary fiction just don’t cut it like they once did. It was inevitable. The lure of pop culture is too strong. But it seems that a simple dumb down won’t cut it either. Nope, we’ve come to expect subtext and metatext. “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” proves once again that quality matters and this sort of thing can be far more than a curious spectacle.
Those extra touches, that market research can’t quite calculate, do matter and are appreciated. Just like the classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, you’ll find here a treasure trove of observations and references that will appeal to an adult’s taste. They’re all quite upbeat and funny with one exception. There’s one that takes a serious turn and strikes a chord. At a point in the movie that allows for an extended look at Mr. Peabody and Sherman growing up, the song in the background is John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.” It will be pleasant to a youngster’s ear and, in it’s own odd and beautiful way, will tug at an adult’s heart.