A highlight of many a Baby Boomer’s childhood was “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History,” a cartoon about a very smart dog, a boy, and a time machine.
Slipped into the Rocky and Bullwinkle kids show, along with the equally ingenious “Fractured Fairytales,” the Mr. Peabody segments always featured Peabody, the smartest dog in the world, Sherman, the nerdiest boy in the world, a time machine dubbed WABAC, and puns – tons and tons of puns.
The time machine premise allowed for a series of smart, funny takes on history that, over the years, introduced boomer kids to almost a hundred historical figures – without boring them. A spoof-ful of sugar.
Now, 50 years later, Hollywood wants to try reviving these tart, sassy 5-minute cartoons into a feature length animated kids movie. Potential pitfalls beckoned everywhere: it could have become a bloated mess or gone sentimental. And although “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” occasionally veers close to both bloat and sentimentality, for the most part, it stays remarkably true to the overall spirit and snarky humor of the original.
In this movie, Peabody, Sherman, and a classmate named Penny use the WABAC machine to visit Ancient Egypt, Troy, Renaissance Italy, and the French Revolution. We get to see how Mona Lisa got her smile and what Marie Antoinette really meant about eating cake. And the movie can’t stop itself from name-dropping, including an impressive roll call from Agamemnon inside the Trojan Horse: Diomedes, Menelaus, Odysseus.
But what makes all this name-dropping palatable, of course, is what comes with it- the wordplay, the jokes – almost all of them puns. Bad puns, dumb puns, and terrible puns.
Like when they go back to Ancient Egypt to Penny, and Mr. Peabody says she’s “in deNile.”
When a skeleton suddenly loses an arm, Peabody cracks, “Well, that’s disarming.”
When the Greeks’ raid on Troy fails, “they must troy, troy again.”
And every so often there’s even a good pun. For instance, Peabody explains to Sherman that Marie Antoinette should have issued an edict giving every citizen a loaf of bread. The problem was she couldn’t have her cake and Edict too.
Will any of this cleverness matter to kids who’ve never heard of Peabody & Sherman, let alone King Tut or Marie Antoinette? I think they’ll still like this movie for two reasons – there are lots of 3D chase scenes and, the old standby, poop jokes.
Grade-schoolers love that stuff, not to mention that the Trojan Horse appears to be pooping Greek soldiers one at a time, and when Peabody and Sherman are trapped inside the famous Egyptian Sphinx, their only escape is to shoot themselves out of the Sphinx’s backside, about which Peabody deadpans, “Well Sherman, it looks like we were the butt of that joke.”
Sherman says he doesn’t get that last joke, but my guess is most moviegoers will, young and old.