With Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Dreamworks Animation sets its Wayback Machine to the early 1960s and charmingly revives one of the most popular features of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show: the one about a dog and his boy.
This winning, witty and warm cartoon captures the flavor, the tone and some of the snappy pace of the TV shorts that began with the droll voice of Bill Scott intoning, "Peabody here, my boy, Sherman, ..."
Here, Mr. Peabody is a Nobel Prize-winning dog who "invented the fist-bump, Auto-Tune and Zumba," and then adopted Sherman. He has given the boy, now 7, a head start on school by taking the kid time-traveling. The Wayback Machine has, we can see from the photos decorating their apartment walls, allowed Sherman to meet Gandhi, Einstein, Da Vinci and the Wright Brothers. He has given Van Gogh some painting suggestions, has caught one of Jackie Robinson's home run and has short-circuited Ben Franklin.
"Where are we going today, Mr. Peabody?"
"Not where, Sherman. When."
As long as Sherman keeps this a secret, nobody will be the wiser as to why he knows, for a fact, that George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree. Of course, Sherman can't keep a secret — not even from the mean girl, Penny, who bullies him.
That's when the trouble starts. Actually, the first "when" is ancient Egypt. Then they check in on Leonardo Da Vinci and try to make Mona Lisa crack a smile. The movie drops in on the Trojan War.
Fans of the old Jay Ward TV show might take longer to adjust to the new voices. Ty Burrell of Modern Family is a droll-enough Peabody; Max Charles (The Neighbors) is Sherman. But the witty wordplay and the pull-out-all-stops supporting cast start to pay off.
Patrick Warburton is way over the top as the Greek King Agamemnon, Stanley Tucci's fractured Italian makes him the perfect Da Vinci, Mel Brooks is Einstein, and so on.
The movie takes a while to find its footing, but then the laughs come fast and furious. (In Egypt: "Who died and made you Pharaoh?")
The animated details of this comedy directed by Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) are a 3-D feast for the eyes. The canvas wings of a Da Vinci glider ripple in the breeze, and when Peabody entertains Penny's parents (Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert, a hoot) with a little Jimi Hendrix, he even plays Hendrix's Fender guitar upside down.
Things drag, here and there. But kids will dig the slapstick and the talking dog, and they'll giggle at what flies out of the Sphinx's butt or drops from the rear end of the Trojan Horse.
Adults will be tickled at the usual Dreamworks parade of one-liners, running gags and puns, and they might feel a little sentimental, especially if they're old enough to know the true lesson these characters taught us on TV — the "moral of the story," as they used to say: "Every dog should have a boy."