Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is an inventor, scientist, gourmand, two-time Olympic medalist and all-round genius... who also happens to be a dog. Using his most ingenious invention, the WABAC machine, Peabody and his adopted boy Sherman (Max Charles) journey back in time to experience world-changing events first-hand and share adventures with some of the greatest people in history. Yet Peabody's greatest challenge is being a parent. When Sherman gets into a fight at school, Peabody tries to smooth things over by inviting mischievous Penny Peterson (Ariel Winter) and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) to his house for dinner. Unfortunately, Sherman attempts to impress pretty Penny with the WABAC catapulting themselves back through time. Can Mr. Peabody save the day and prove himself a first-rate father before he loses Sherman forever?
One of animation's too long-neglected heroes, Jay Ward created the original Peabody's Improbable History cartoons as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Which is worth pointing out given how many filmgoers bizarrely regarded this DreamWorks feature film adaptation as a ripping off Brian and Stewie from Family Guy. Seriously people, animation goes back a lot further than the last ten years. The fifth Jay Ward creation to reach the screen, following in the wake of Boris and Natasha (1992), George of the Jungle, Dudley Do-Right (1999) and the flawed yet amusingly metatextual The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), holds the remarkable distinction of being the first fully animated adaptation. Capturing the energy and irreverence of Ward's wonderful original from the get-go, a rapid-fire montage ably establishes the eccentric conceit (genius canine polymath raises human boy as single father) but injects an emotional core. Voiced to perfection by Modern Family's Ty Burrell, Mr. Peabody tries to prove to the world that a dog can be a great dad but in his zeal ends up stifling Sherman's need to grow up.
Some critics interpreted the story as an allegory in defense of atypical families, whether mixed race families or children raised by gay parents. If that sounds like over-reaching it is worth pointing out that Penny initially bullies Sherman because his father is a dog and the plot includes an overbearing child services agent (Allison Janney) who maintains her bigoted belief that a dog can never be a suitable parent. The film never gets heavy-handed with its allegorical intent but pulls off the odd affecting moment amidst the uproarious time-travelling antics. Spun from a genuinely funny script penned by Craig Wright with additional input from comedians and writer-directors Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant - who besides conceiving Night at the Museum (2006) have also punched up screenplays for many a family film - along with Saturday Night Live veteran Michael McMullers, writer-director of Baby Mama (2011), the action moves at an amazingly fast pace firing off gags a mile-a-minute in a fireworks display of visual and verbal wit.
Animation veteran Rob Minkoff, co-director of The Lion King (1994) although latterly making a name for himself in quality live action family fare like Stuart Little (1999) and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), propels the film from one fluid, creative, exhilarating set-piece after another. The film is further distinguished by a love of history including genuinely witty gags while each of Peabody's historical jaunt imprint a lesson upon young Sherman that prove an invaluable asset for his future. High points in the helter-skelter ride through history include a memorable encounter with Leonardo Da Vinci (Stanley Tucci) who struggles to make Mona Lisa (Lake Bell) smile and a motivational speech from King Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) inside the Trojan horse complete with combat scenes parodying 300 (2006). Aspects of the film do recall Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) which is no bad point of reference while the plot twist wherein Sherman briefly looks to Agamemnon as a substitute father figure comes straight out of Time Bandits (1981).
Some took issue with the inclusion of Penny, voiced by another Modern Family cast member: Ariel Winter, the mean girl who leads Sherman and Peabody into endless trouble. Most notably in ancient Egypt where she cosies up to the young King Tut in pursuit of his wealth unaware when he dies she will be put to death too. In Penny's defence she serves as an important catalyst encouraging Sherman to take his first faltering steps away from Peabody's shadow and gain the confidence that enables him to save the day. Plus she has her moment of redemption. The film has great fun mixing up the mechanics of the space-time continuum and builds to a lively climax where historical figures run amuck in New York city. Listen out also for Mel Brooks as the voice of Albert Einstein in a gag reference to Midnight Cowboy (1969) of all things.
[Extras on the richly colourful 20th Century Fox Region 2 DVD include a bunch of featurettes, with a tour of the WABAC machine and a guide to DreamWorks animation among them.]