For decades, fans of the late animator Jay Ward have watched Hollywood transform his roughly drawn but sly-humored television cartoons into duds. From 1997's barely passable "George of the Jungle," starring Brendan Fraser, to 2000's disastrous "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," featuring Robert De Niro, the movies have generally been so dumbed down that they resemble Ward's witty creations in name only.
The computer-animated "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a major improvement. Like the original cartoon segments (created by Ted Key for Ward's "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show"), the feature-length movie centers on a brilliant inventor, Peabody (a vaguely beagle-ish dog), and his adopted human son, Sherman. As they travel through time using Peabody's WABAC machine -- no longer a room-sized mess of dials and gauges but a sleek, red orb -- the movie has trouble stitching together disjointed episodes into a coherent narrative. Thanks to a strong voice cast, however, the characters retain their charm throughout.
Ty Burrell, of ABC's "Modern Family," is an aural ringer for original voice actor Bill Scott as Peabody, a finicky genius with a fondness for tortured puns ("You can't have your cake and edict, too," he says after visiting Marie Antoinette). In this telling, Sherman, voiced by 10-year-old Max Charles, invites his bored classmate Penny (Ariel Winter, also from "Modern Family") into the WABAC, resulting in a series of misadventures. They'll encounter a slap-happy Leonardo da Vinci (Stanley Tucci), a knuckle-headed Agamemnon (Patrick Warburton) and other historical persons. Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann play Penny's present-day parents.
Director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King") and writer Craig Wright rely a bit too much on body-function humor, but they also show us the tender bond between dog and boy. There's something timely about this nontraditional family, made legal in an amusing scene by an activist judge (Dennis Haysbert). Allison Janney, as the school principal Miss Grunion, provides the voice of societal disapproval.
The movie's most Ward-worthy sequence unfolds in ancient Egypt, when Peabody must stop Penny's wedding to King Tut. The jokes sound like vintage Mad magazine ("But we already paid for the catering!") and the whole high-energy episode ends with one of Peabody's dependable groaners. "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" can't sustain that pace throughout, but the movie admirably -- even doggedly -- tries.
PLOT The adventures of a time-traveling dog and his faithful boy.
RATING PG (rude humor)
CAST Voices of Ty Burrell, Max Charles, Ariel Winter
BOTTOM LINE More for kids than adults, unlike the cheeky 1960s cartoons, but the movie offers enough sly humor and tender moments to please everyone.
'ROCKY' FLICKS SQUIRRELED AWAY THE LAUGHS
Let's set the WABAC machine to 1959, when Mr. Peabody and Sherman debuted on "Rocky and His Friends," Jay Ward's animated Cold War spoof about Rocky the flying squirrel, his dimwitted moose pal Bullwinkle and Eastern European spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. Let's hope the new "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" movie fares better than earlier big-screen efforts with "Rocky" characters.
BORIS AND NATASHA (1992) -- Dave Thomas ("SCTV") and Sally Kellerman starred as the bunglers who defected to America to capture a time-reverse microchip. Missing in this pot of borscht were Rocky and Bullwinkle because the production company could not secure the rights to those characters. Lucky them.
DUDLEY DO-RIGHT (1999) -- Another popular "Rocky" segment revolved around inept Mountie Dudley (here played by Brendan Fraser), his sweetheart Nell and mustache-twirling villain Snidely Whiplash. Blame Canada for the weak attempts at humor ("Scientists discover that Canadian bacon is ordinary ham"). More like Dudley Done Wrong.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY & BULLWINKLE (2002) -- Joe Pesci, Danny DeVito, Cher and Meryl Streep were considered for Boris and Natasha, but Jason Alexander and Rene Russo got the parts. Even with Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader and June Foray again voicing Rocky, the film was a bigger fumble than a dropped ball at the Wossamotta U. game.
-- Daniel Bubbeo