In bringing the Rocky & Bullwinkle offshoot characters of Mr. Peabody and Sherman to the big screen, director Rob Minkoff and scribes Craig Wright and Michael McCullers have opted to leave behind the torturously wonderful puns of the old cartoons in favor of modern visual razzle-dazzle. The result is that something quirky and unique has become something very ordinary.
Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is the world's smartest dog. He can play any musical instrument, graduated from Harvard, and apparently invented Zumba. He also built a time machine he's dubbed the "WABAC," and is the adoptive father of a human child named Sherman (Max Charles). When Sherman, on his first day of school, crosses paths with a bully who teases him about having a dog for a dad, Peabody invites the mean girl and her parents over for dinner. The kids promptly take off in the WABAC, causing Peabody to travel through time and extract them from numerous misadventures involving ancient Greece and the painting of the Mona Lisa.
There is promise in the film's early minutes. Ty Burrell has perfectly captured Peabody's smug, inoffensively condescending voice. He's fun to listen to, and for a few minutes the movie looks to be the first quality adaptation of the Rocky & Bullwinkle universe. Alas, instead of giving their heroes a bunch of witty jaunts through time, the filmmakers have saddled them with a tired father-and-son-in-conflict story. This lazy emotional arc wouldn't be so frustrating if they'd upped the laughs, but with the exception of two glorious moments, they avoid the so-bad-it's-good wordplay of the cartoons and instead go for poop gags. Lots of them.
The few times the screenplay does throw a bone to those who remember the original show by crafting a really great pun, another character will inevitably chime in, "I don't get it," so that people in the audience too young or too dumb to appreciate the joke won't feel bad. Those moments undercut the few genuine laughs and will leave a sour taste for viewers who can feel the condescension.
The Mr. Peabody and Sherman segments that aired on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show were brief, witty, and charmingly slight, but this big-screen version is long, loud, and visually exhausting. The material has so little to do with its source that the characters could have had different names and the film would be the same; it's hard to shake the suspicion that DreamWorks is just cashing in on nostalgia. This feels less like an attempt to update a boomer classic for millennials than a prime example of how lazy marketing guys hold sway over what movies get made.