Before getting sucked into a what-the-wormhole ending that will scramble young brains, time-travel romp Mr. Peabody & Sherman is a fast, fun 3-D getaway, just a boy, his smart dog dad and scads of pop-culture winks, historical hijinks and dazzling set pieces. It's DreamWorks Animation leaning more toward the go-go-go gag-reel antics of Monsters vs. Aliens than the narrative-driven How to Train Your Dragon.
Some of you remember the kid and the canine, right? A stalwart segment of Jay Ward's pun-tastic '60s staple The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, "Peabody's Improbable History" turned past into parody. It starred bespectacled brainiac Mr. Peabody, his aw-shucks son Sherman and that whiz-bang WABAC Machine, which allowed them to teach, and tweak, everyone from Napoleon to Cleopatra, from the French Revolution to the Trojan Wars. Every story, then and now, kicks with a winning groaner: "If at first you don't succeed, Troy, Troy again."
Given the advances in CGI 'toonery, you can see the remake appeal in such adventure-prone settings as the French Revolution and Ancient Egypt. And indeed, a runaway zoom on one of Da Vinci's flying machines is so good, you'll instantly start daydreaming of the thrill-ride potential.
The '60s bits were a few minutes long; now we need backstory. So the "adoptive" parental situation between mutt and boy is tense. That's a result of Peabody (voiced by Modern Family's Ty Burrell, nailing the egghead snoot) filling in a lonely life with academia — before the Harvard-educated pooch discovers an abandoned baby in an alley. "I have a deep regard for you," Mr. Peabody, unable to say the l-o-v-e word, strains to tell his son.
Then you throw in a social-services battle ax (Allison Janney) who wants to break up the mixed-species brood. Finally, you add a bratty love interest for Sherman, a rotten girl named Penny who seduces the grade-schooler into all sorts of trouble (and almost marries King Tut).
The flick could have been a lot messier. After all, Moose and Squirrel suffered a brutal silver-screen adaptation in 2000's The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. But Mr. Peabody & Sherman has a slick pedigree, including director Rob Minkoff, who has The Lion King on his resume. Minkoff knew his movie worked best stuck in yesteryear, and he gets there soon enough, especially a touching montage of Peabody raising Sherman: teaching him to swim in the Nile next to Moses, taking him to a baseball game where they catch a Jackie Robinson homer. The animation is a swirly joy here, and the 3-D pops in all the right places, especially when Sherman flies his first kite...and Ben Franklin's key drops into your lap.
For an hour, this one's a gem, especially a spirited turn by Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon, plus action nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark and 300.
But then the pleasant plot gets too tangled for its own good: space-time loopiness, multiple Peabodys and Shermans running around and a head-scratching denouement that baffles the mind and leaves a supposed emotional climax with zero oomph. Too bad. Mr. Peabody & Sherman has a blast living in the past — too bad a good time is warped when it comes back to the future.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.