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Review: 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' may be too smart for its own good

EntertainmentMoviesReviewsAnimation (Movie Genre)FamilyPetsModern Family (tv program)

In that ever-expanding world of kid/grown-up movies, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" reveals a case of conflicted allegiances.

While the characters from the beloved Rocky and Bullwinkle shows of the 1960s mixed arch intelligence with kid confusion to the delight of the Saturday-morning cartoon crowd a generation ago, the big-screen adventure is more Adult Swim than Saturday morning. Those are treacherous waters to tread.

The film is 3-D, but you barely notice that extra D. It's filled with the sort of erudite discourse that befits Mr. Peabody, the genius dog, with a genius choice for a voice in "Modern Family's" Ty Burrell, whose delivery is dry to the bone.

The story is "Modern Family"-friendly in other ways. Mr. Peabody is reimagined as an actual rather than implied father to the young boy Sherman (Max Charles). It's an adoption situation, one that is suddenly in jeopardy, a theme that drives the film. The explanation of why a canine could adopt a boy in the first place is none too subtle in suggesting contemporary dilemmas.

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We get the back story of Sherman found as an abandoned baby by the brilliant beagle along with a laundry list of Mr. Peabody's many accomplishments: Harvard degree, inventor, business titan, mixologist… Though maybe that last talent is saved for later. It serves as a setup for anyone unfamiliar with the basic conceit — the dog is the superior being — and a mechanism to explain the changes made in moving from short TV segment to main big-screen attraction.

The unwieldy opening also exemplifies the film's central difficulty in finding the right balance between riffing on the cultural zeitgeist for adults and seeding in enough silliness for kids. It's a problem that increasingly seems to be systemic to DreamWorks' animated films as the studio struggles to take the formula that made "Shrek" such a success in 2001 and play it forward.

Director Rob Minkoff, who was behind the mildly amusing animation/live-action mix of "Stuart Little," and screenwriter Craig Wright, whose credits include the very smart HBO series "Six Feet Under," have captured the characters' fundamental je ne sais quoi in sometimes delightful ways.

And they clearly understand the need to reach the kid quotient. There's a smattering of harmless scatological sight gags likely to make everyone giggle. The Trojan horse is the funniest, helped by Patrick Warburton's odoriferous Agamemnon.

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The animation style mirrors the original, which is simple in an appealing way. It is particularly effective in the action sequences, which make the most of animation's ability to create a playful reality. But the multi-layered historical references designed to be adroitly wry are a trickier gambit.

Rarely do I feel inclined to say this, but the film may actually be too smart for its own good. Many of Mr. Peabody's "teaching moments" will sail right over the heads of kids while requiring adults to pay attention. Sherman's frequent reaction —"Huh? I don't get it" — will likely be echoed by many youngsters in the audience.

As it happens, being "too smart" is Sherman's problem at school too. After all the pre-school educating Mr. Peabody has been doing, Sherman is in the unfortunate position of knowing too much. By outsmarting the smartest girl in class on the first day, the boy makes a formidable enemy.

Voiced by another "Modern Family" member, Ariel Winter, Penny's lunchroom taunting leads to Sherman acting out, and before you know it an officious female from Family Services named Miss Grunion (Allison Janney) is threatening to take the boy away.

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The rest of the film follows the misadventures that begin when Mr. Peabody invites Penny and her parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) over for dinner in hopes the youngsters can work through their issues.

Instead they take their competing egos along with them in the WABAC machine, Mr. Peabody's time-traveling invention. Finally the film gets its footing. Time travel allows the kids, with Mr. Peabody's assistance, to have clever fun at history's expense: Smile, Mona Lisa, smile.

But the underlying 21st century issues — what makes a good parent, what makes a family, how can a friendship between feuding kids be forged — seem relatively rote. For all the ways the film reflects its earlier TV incarnation, the shadings have been softened. "Mr. Peabody" could use a bit more bite.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

MPAA rating: PG for some mild action and brief rude humor

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: In general release

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