My first experience with time travel came courtesy of a very smart dog in a bow-tie and his slightly stupid boy.
I grew up watching "Rocky and Friends" reruns, but it wasn't the moose and squirrel that held my attention. No, I preferred to spend by time with Mr. Peabody, a brilliant dog who apparently invented a time machine solely to educate poor Sherman, a wide-eyed child who clearly looked up to Mr. Peabody as either a teacher or father figure. The duo starred in several cartoon shorts where they traveled back to various points in history, making sure peace treaties are signed and bringing inspiration to Beethoven.
I loved Mr. Peabody. He wreaked havoc with the facts – Beethoven was in America, for example, in a modern enough time that there were traffic lights – but he made history seem as interesting as the fiction books I loved so much. Not only interesting, but funny – all the short cartoons on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show ended with a pun, and the ones Mr. Peabody gave never talked down to the audience. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, and re-watching the old shorts now I can pick up all the sly, historically-conscious little in-jokes I missed the first time around.
Which is why when I saw the trailers for the new "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" movie, it felt like someone had found eight-year-old me and given her a good, solid kick. Every second of the two and a half minutes was packed with terrible slapstick-style jokes, since Hollywood apparently thinks that kids these days can no longer handle word-based humor. I could picture Mr. Peabody sniffing disapprovingly at all of them.
Far worse, though, were the crimes committed against Mr. Peabody. In the original cartoons, the character was the picture of an educated, dignified adult, with impeccable diction, vocabulary and manners no matter how crazy the circumstances were. The fact that he was a dog was all the joke the writers needed, and they trusted their young audience to use their eyes without beating them over the head with reminders. In the trailer, unsurprisingly, there's an entire multi-part scene where Mr. Peabody can't resist the urge to chase a bright red ball.
I’ve had fellow movie critics say that the movie is rather sweet, and though there are plenty of scatological jokes there are also plenty of puns in the spirit of the original show. Still, even they agree it’s a very different creation than the original cartoon, loveable in its own way but not at all similar to what still lingers in my memory.
In the end, maybe that’s the real problem at the heart of all of us who complain about these adaptations. Every new version writes over the top of the old one in permanent marker, both in the public consciousness and the shifting fragile world of memory. The experience we cherished so much disappears, shrinking and fading until it’s only a footnote in a Wikipedia entry. A little bit of the stuff that made us who we are becomes something we don’t recognize.
So I think I’ll skip the new “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” and hold onto that piece of my childhood for just a little longer.