A big part of making children’s movies these days is making them enjoyable for parents, too. Sometimes that’s through reference and off-color humor, as in a recent Muppets Most Wanted TV spot paying homage to Midnight Cowboy—a rather salacious joke that I certainly hope seven-year-olds didn’t catch. But Mr. Peabody & Sherman has humor for the big kids in the audience of a very different tenor.
To wit: a scene where the eponymous dog (that’s Mr. Peabody) makes a drink he calls an “Einstein on the Beach” for two yuppie Manhattanite private-school parents (voiced by Leslie Mann and Stephen Colbert). If that doesn’t charm you, I don’t know what will.
The film, directed by Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and made by DreamWorks Animation, is based on a segment from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show about a time-traveling dog-genius, his son, and their historical adventures, here stemming from a first-day-of-school mishap with a bitchy blonde who Sherman naturally falls for. There’s the French revolution, the Mona Lisa, the Trojan Horse, George Washington, and a first-grade-level definition of “apocryphal.”
Of course the movie is programmatic, but we’re talking about a film with a median audience age of around 10. The fun is in watching our knowledge of the historical record bump up against the film’s interpretation: Mr. Peabody asks Sherman why he said they had to stick together during the French Revolution (he has snuck off for cake in the Versailles kitchen), and his response is “because it’s going to rain?” Peabody is horrified: “No, after the French Revolution is the Reign of Terror!”
Since age eight I’ve been thinking about my uncle’s explanation of a scene in The Naked Gun (not a children’s movie, I know) where Priscilla Presley asks Leslie Nielsen how he prevents his big gun from going off, and he replies “I think about baseball.” My uncle’s attempted exegesis was simply, “You’ll get it when you’re older.”
But here, I can’t wait for the kids to get it when they’re older, to find themselves in history class hearing about things that echo deeply-buried memories of a DreamWorks animated film they saw in 2014. My little sister has seen it twice, so she’ll remember who Robespierre is. Not bad for a seven-year-old.