Admittedly, I was overly worried going into this film. Thanks to some unflattering trailers, I actually avoided this film for a few weeks. The truth is that the original Rocky and Bullwinkle series is one of my favourite shows, and I was fairly certain that this movie was probably going to offend the fanboy in me.
Luckily enough, the film itself is not insulting to its source material. By no means is it nearly as good as the old show, but it pays homage its namesake enough to build a decent children’s feature out of it.
Unfortunately, the movie only directly references the classic original for one scene. Apparently, spending 90 minutes of a big budget movie saving historical figures from their own stupid selves is not interesting enough for modern audiences, and rather introduces a female antagonist/love interest for Sherman so that the time travelling duo has an excuse to spend its screen time actually travelling through time.
This character, Penny, introduces some emotional conflicts for our heroes to deal with. Our villain, turned third-wheel protagonist, kicks off the film by bullying Sherman for having a strange adoptive father; she does so by calling Sherman a dog. This results in a fight where all the blame is placed on Sherman and Mr. Peabody is forced to impress Penny’s parents (featuring a surprise performance from Steven Colbert) and the Trunchbull-esque Ms. Grunion. Prior to the dinner party, Sherman is forced to learn to get along with Penny and uses the Wayback time machine to break the ice. What follows is Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s attempt to bring Penny back from the past while trying to deal with their newly found emotional conflicts.
The crux of this film’s plot, the emotional conflict between Peabody (well portrayed by Ty Burell) and Sherman (played by the veteran child actor Max Charles) is both what holds this film together and what irks me the most. Several true-to-life issues are dealt with in this film, including the complicated bond between two very different people in adoptive relationships, the need of the father to help and coach a child, and the opposing need for a child to learn their own independent skills.
Some of these issues actually pay homage, and almost spoof, the original relationship of Mr. Peabody and Sherman. For example, in the old show, Sherman was less a character and more a reflection of the audience, while Peabody was just a perfect, rather genius dog-of-all-trades. Sherman mostly spent every episode asking Mr. Peabody questions, letting him solve all the problems and had a few rare chances to tell a joke. In this film, that situation has been turned on its head and now Sherman feels kind of useless next to his father’s overly-controlling behavior.
At the same time, making these characters over-emotive (to the point of being a little sappy) directly contradicts the original tone of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Jay Ward’s characters spent the entirety of their screen time telling witty, sometimes downright terrible, jokes and puns while sarcastically satirizing events and myths both current and historic. Characters were more likely to mock each other than hug each other and if there was a tender moment it was usually an ironic one played for laughs. In essence, what Rocky and Bullwinkle (and Friends) was doing in an animated fashion to an audience of children, was what Seinfeld would be doing decades later (or for more current audiences, it would be comparable to Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
Still, the film was truer to the show than I expected it to be, and as a standalone movie, it’s actually a pretty decent animated title. My biggest worry was that its humour would rely too heavily on current pop-culture and empty dog gags as shown in the trailers. To my surprise, the few topical references made were restricted to the ones shown in the trailer and some actually didn’t even make it into the movie (yet another example added to an ever growing list of reasons to avoid trailers).
Overall, I would actually say this movie is actually worth watching. At the same time, I will mention that its biggest crime is actually not being nearly as funny as it could have been, if only it wasn’t too busy resorting to working through its forced conflicts. If you’re looking for a friendly romp with a few chuckles, then give Mr. Peabody and Sherman a watch. If you’re looking for some really funny moments, watch an episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle and spend the extra hour enjoying the nice April weather. For you know what they say, April’s hours bring May flowers (I know it’s bad but I couldn’t resist).