I was an underachiever in my high school years. Mind you, I did all right scholastically…though admittedly, I didn’t always apply myself where studying was concerned. In retrospect, I don’t have too many regrets because most of what I was taught focused on memorizing facts and regurgitating them on command…as opposed to far-more-practical critical thinking skills. Where test taking was concerned, I relied mostly on what I retained from class discussions.
I remember taking a history test one time and being quizzed on who was the inventor of the printing press. I knew the answer—but it wasn’t because I remembered “Joannes Gutenberg” mentioned in class. Fortuitously, I had recently seen a segment of Peabody’s Improbable History on a rerun of The Bullwinkle Show, where the time-traveling dog and his faithful boy visited the man responsible for introducing printing to Europe (via mechanical movable type). What amused me about this was that for years, my parents decried my television watching habits with the admonition: “You’ll rot your brain…what do you hope to gain by watching cartoons, anyway?” In their defense, TV did wind up rotting my brain…but for years I was able to lord over them that a cartoon gave me a learning assist when I needed it the most.
For those of you who didn’t benefit from a lifetime of brain-rot-through-TV, Peabody’s Improbable History (created by Hazel’s Ted Key and developed by the legendary Jay Ward) was a segment on Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show about a talking dog (voiced by Bill Scott, who sounded a lot like Clifton Webb), his pet boy (voiced by Walter Tetley; the joke was “If a boy can have a dog…why can’t a dog have a boy?”), and the time machine the pooch had built because, like Webb’s “Mr. Belvedere,” he was a certified genius and he wanted to keep his boy occupied. Each story on History found the two traveling in the WABAC to some point in history (the first Kentucky Derby, the Battle of Bunker Hill, etc.) or to have a chinwag with a famous figure, and at each episode’s end Peabody would let loose with a groaner of a pun as a sort of comic punctuation.
Peabody and Sherman’s time-bending adventures were among the most popular supporting cartoons on Rocky & Bullwinkle’s show, and the WABAC has permeated pop culture, notably Archive.org’s inspired dubbing of the deleted history of Internet pages/websites “the Wayback Machine.” (My favorite reference is in the NewsRadio episode “Goofy Ball”: “Dave, don’t mess with a man with a Wayback Machine. I can make it so you were never born.”) One of Peabody’s Improbable History’s fans is Lion King director Rob Minkoff, who saw his dream of a feature-length film based on the cartoon hit theatre screens in 2014 with Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The good people at DISH network have bestowed us with a “freeview” of several movie channels in the past few days and seeing that Peabody & Sherman was available to download via FXM (Fox Movie Channel) on Demand, curiosity demanded I have a watch. (Yes, demanded. Pounded the table and everything.)
Mr. Peabody & Sherman doesn’t offer too many surprises if you’re already familiar with the original material apart from being a visually dazzling reboot of the famed duo jet-setting through history (with stops at places like the French Revolution and the Trojan War), and a little conflict added in the form of one of Sherman’s schoolmates, a domineering little doyenne who answers to “Penny” (and voiced by Ariel Winter). Penny bullies Sherman at school, and his lashing out at the treatment (he bites her) stands to jeopardize his position as Peabody’s adopted kid (thanks to the formidable Ms. Grunion, voiced by Allison Janney). When Peabody tries to make peace by inviting Penny’s parents over for a nice dinner, Sherman foolishly shows Penny the WABAC…and the expected complications ensue.
I’ll be upfront about this. I was not the target audience for this movie. My fond memories of Peabody’s Improbable History are in five-minutes-or-less form, with the anachronistic humor and the wiseass sensibility of the Jay Ward cartoon factory. It’s a bit jarring making the transition from the limited animation of the original to the lushly illustrated feature, which I cannot deny is a joy to behold even if some critics weren’t all that wild about its in-your-face graphics. It also took some time for me to adjust to the voices of Ty Burrell (Peabody) and Max Charles (Sherman)—that’s how ingrained (Bill) Scott and (Walter) Tetley are in my memory banks.
An individual as steeped in fogeyism as I am would be predisposed to piss and moan about how it’s no match for the original but that would just be me unleashing my inner curmudgeon. I enjoyed Mr. Peabody & Sherman (my mother predictably slept through it, waking just long enough to ask “Where did you find this?”) and it’s a delightful romp for modern-day kid audiences; I don’t know if my nephew has seen this one (I gave up recommending movies to him after his tepid reaction to 1969’s The Phantom Tollbooth) but I bet he’d be as entertained as I was.
My only real nitpick is that Mr. Peabody & Sherman falls short in capturing what Elizabeth Weitzman called ”the wry deadpan of the original”; the script by Craig Wright gets a little drippy with the sentimentality on occasion and despite some undeniably amusing in-jokes (check out the bit with the Trojan Horse before the closing credits roll) it lacks the satirical snap of 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (a movie not without its own flaws but it tickled the hell out of me). Nevertheless, Peabody & Sherman has some engaging moments, the highlight being the Trojan War sequence with Patrick Warburton hilariously voicing Agamemnon. There are other entertaining contributions from celebrity voices, including Stephen Tobolowky, Dennis Haysbert, Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Lake Bell, and Mel Brooks (as Albert Einstein).
Despite underperforming at the box office, Mr. Peabody & Sherman later resurfaced as a Netflix TV series, with our cartoon duo interviewing historical figures in Peabody’s Manhattan penthouse. I haven’t seen any of these episodes but I do recall that Andrew “Grover” Leal was a little critical about the writing, noting that he could create better puns. (I don’t doubt that he could…though I’ve found through experience it’s best not to encourage him.)