Fans of Peabody’s Improbable History, the corny time-traveling segment from Boom-era favorite The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, won’t be entirely disappointed with this filmic adaptation. It begins well, even despite new voices — like Ty Burrell playing the only canine ever made Valedogtorian of Harvard. The film’s opening sequence echoes the format and poetry of the original with an impromptu visit to the French Revolution in the WABAC Machine. Peabody and his adopted boy, Sherman (a lot more clueless now than on TV), drop in on the Royal Court where, it turns out, much of the peasant problems result from Marie Antoinette’s crazy cake obsession. Straightening out the upheaval and evading the guillotine, Peabody reminds Sherman of a little-known law that Marie tried to pass that might have nipped the whole Reign of Terror in the bud. Unfortunately, he points out to his dutiful boy, “You can’t have your cake and edict too.”
This is heaven: Pure Jay Ward lumpen-historicity (even though Hazel cartoonist Ted Key actually created Mr. P and Shermie) that combines deep surrealism with a love of cheap and easy gags reinforced by complex punnery. It’s Soupy Sales meets James Joyce. If the rest of the movie had been anywhere near as good as this bit, thousands of us old kids who grew up on a steady diet of such highbrow, low-thrill artistry would be dragging our grandchildren and our walkers off to see the remake. Judging by the box office figures, many did anyways.
But this being a big studio picture with franchising potential, the filmmakers decided to abandon the artistry and go all meta-time-travel-cliché on it; there’s an over-elaborate origin story and weirdly hilarious postmodern gags, including a creepy mechanical boy, pop-culture references, and an endgame resembling Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s too well plotted and not half as well written as what the Bullwinkle gang might’ve mustered half a century ago. Of course, we all know the problems began with script arguments when the original Peabody was asked to accept a new character: a salamander named Richard. Which just goes to show, you can’t teach an old dog newt ricks.