Like the recent The Lego Movie, this animated feature is very derivative of a lot of other things. What makes this better is its main characters feel realized. They feel like actual flesh, rather than just plastic. It's not merely the aesthetic or the style of the animation. It's the emotion and depth behind the characters. Yes, the Lego characters aren't designed to have flesh, but still the emotion either in the writing or the vocal performance can give the Lego characters flesh. Whatever emotion is in The Lego Movie, it's not as heartfelt as it is here. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is even more heartfelt than other DreamWorks properties, such as the Shrek franchise, but it's rather on par with How to Train Your Dragon (2010).
At its core, the film is the story of a father and son. The quirk is that the father is a dog and the son is a 7-year-old human. The dog can talk and is a certified genius, master athlete and jack-of-all-trades named Mr. Peabody and the boy is a sensitive but loving nerd named Sherman. So many cartoons have revolved around man and dog or boy and dog. From Snoopy and Charlie Brown to Scooby-Doo and Shaggy! Even though the dog never spoke, this film mostly approached the relationship between Snoopy and Charlie Brown, and not simply because both dogs are beagles and the boys are similar in age.
What this film offers that other boy-and-dog cartoons don't is an absolute love and celebration of history and science. At first, the film is like an animated version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) but with two protagonists who weren't idiots and appreciated history and science on a higher level, not as a sense of awe and wonder but one of respect and preciousness. A montage in the first third, which like Forrest Gump (1994) inserts Mr. Peabody and Sherman in crucial moments of history, interacting with crucial figures of history, set to the song "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" by John Lennon, is a perfect example.
As the film went along, it started to remind me more of the TV series Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? (1994). The film seems to do a fine balancing act of being educational, as Mr. Peabody is trying to teach Sherman important lessons, while also being a kind of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) or The Adventures of Tintin (2011) kind of action film. Yes, there is very much a Steven Spielberg quality to all of this, certainly in the way the chase scenes work.
The writing by Craig Wright (Six Feet Under and Lost) with additional material by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Night at the Museum and Reno 911!) as well as Michael McCullers (Saturday Night Live and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me) has a tone that is not far flung from all the past works credited to these guys as well as that of Back to the Future (1985), except Christopher Lloyd is replaced with Ty Burrell, as the voice of Mr. Peabody. Strangely, I confused Burrell as sounding like John Lithgow, but I should have known better given Peabody's absolute love of verbal puns, which were delivered with gleeful passion.
The message is one that echoes families that are made by paper rather than blood. Mr. Peabody adopts Sherman as a baby, making their relationship a paper one initially, but that doesn't mean their bond, one of love or "deep regard," can't be just as strong. It's also a commentary that just because one is born into something doesn't mean one has to be limited to that something, which also doesn't mean you have to be ashamed of that something as well. The metaphor is that of a dog. Just because Mr. Peabody was born a dog doesn't mean he has to stay a dog. Nor does it mean he should be ashamed of being a dog.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for some mild action and brief rude humor.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 32 mins.
Almost Home is a 4-minute short film by Todd Wilderman, an up-and-coming animator. It precedes this feature. It's funny but forgettable.
"Way Back When" is the end credits song by the band Grizfolk and is better than "Everything Is Awesome" from The Lego Movie.