Fans of the classic 1960s cartoon “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” grew up with the antics of Mr. Peabody and Sherman, the world’s smartest dog and his adopted human boy, who traveled through time on educational adventures chronicled in segments called “Peabody’s Improbable History.”
Today, thanks to a decade’s worth of persistence by director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”), a new generation of fans can enjoy the history-hopping duo in their first animated feature film, the aptly titled “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.”
The movie begins with Sherman’s first day at school, where the boy (voiced by Max Charles) is bullied by a classmate named Penny (Ariel Winter). When Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) plans a dinner date to patch things up between his adopted son and the blonde nemesis, the kids accidentally take the clever canine’s time machine – called the WABAC – to ancient Egypt. As the drama unfolds, Peabody not only risks losing his boy to history, but to a biased agent (Allison Janney) at Children’s Services as well.
I recently sat down with Minkoff to talk about why he wanted Peabody in theaters, find out how the film has changed since receiving the green light and get an insight into the future of animation.
David Onda: What was it about “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” that made you want to commit 10 years to trying to get this on the big screen?
Rob Minkoff: I remember watching it as a kid growing up, and it was really the characters that stuck with me. Mr. Peabody was a great character – the relationship with Sherman was funny in its idea that a dog could adopt a boy. And the WABAC machine and time travel and meeting all the historical characters was always kind of funny and fun. It felt like just the combination of those things were worthy of making a film of. It seemed like a good idea. [laughs]
Onda: When you’re making a kids’ movie involving time travel, do you simplify the concepts of time travel to make it understandable for young viewers?
Minkoff: Well, I’ll tell you. We actually met with a physicist named Ken Wharton, who was a consultant on the movie, to talk about time travel and how it’s being used in different movies like “Back to the Future” and “Terminator.” We wanted to get it right. That was actually more of the critical thing – to hopefully make it make sense in its sort of nonsensical way.
Onda: I like that “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” doesn’t include the age-old time-traveling rule that if you change the past, you change the future.
Minkoff: We had that as a storyline in one of the earlier versions of the movie. In fact, the very first version of the movie was entirely about that. We developed the script and it was a completely different story. There was a villain, and he stole the WABAC and he used it to change the future. Many of these ideas, we experimented and had fun with, but it’s sort of a long process and we ended up with ideas we did through attrition as much as anything else.
Onda: What was it about this version of “Peabody” that ultimately made you realize this is what you wanted?
Minkoff: There was a screenplay that was written by two writers, and that was the one that was green lit. It was very funny and it was given the go-ahead to make, and it has absolutely no similarity to the movie that we made. Craig Wright, who’s the screenwriter who’s been credited, came in and had a really great insight. He said, “We should change Sherman’s nemesis from a boy to a girl.” It was a boy in the earlier draft. We said that’s a good idea, because that relationship with Sherman is gonna affect Sherman, gonna change him in way that’s gonna affect his relationship with Mr. Peabody. Essentially, that was what was missing from that earlier draft of the script – the inner life of the characters. In the original show, they didn’t really deal with that at all. They just dealt with this superficial idea of the boy and his dog and the fact that he had the WABAC and would go time-traveling, sort of touring through history. But getting under the skin of the characters and actually getting to understand them more dimensionally was an important goal for the film, because you can’t make a 90-minute movie and not have enough substance to the storytelling.
Onda: We don’t see many movies that deal with adoptive relationships, especially adoptive father and son relationships. Have you heard from adoptive families who have seen the film?
Minkoff: I have, a little bit. Somebody who was adopted said they saw the movie and it affected them and they were very emotional about it. It’s the second movie I’ve done about adoption, only it was reversed. In “Stuart Little,” he was a mouse that got adopted by human parents. In this movie, it’s a dog that adopts a boy. The orphan myth is a big one in animation.
Onda: Was it just a coincidence that Ty and Ariel (“Modern Family” co-stars) were cast together?
Minkoff: Yeah. We cast Ty first, and then we were looking for someone to play Penny. It was a tough part to fill, because we had to make sure she was charming, while she was being the nemesis for Sherman, and that you liked her. It’s a tricky thing. Ariel was amazing, she really is great and she was able to play that with the right feeling. You somewhat forgave her for being – she’s pretty mean in the movie, but you still like her, I think.
Onda: What lessons and skills from working on hand-drawn films, like “The Lion King,” do you still use now for something like “Mr. Peabody”?
Minkoff: In a way, there are so many similarities. We do storyboarding – we design everything in drawings before we do anything in the computer. The difference is, we used to draw on paper and we don’t do that anymore. Who’d a thought? Everyone works on a tablet and when we do a story pitch, you’ll see it on a television monitor one drawing at a time, as opposed to what we used to do, which was pin them all up to a big board. And the truth is, it’s better today, because one of the dangers of pitching a board is people can look ahead – which you hate. It was a terrible thing. If you pitch Jeffrey [Katzenberg], for example, and you could tell that his eyes were wandering, you’d have a pointer and you’d be pointing to the drawing like, “Look at this drawing!” It ruins everything. You wanna control the performance. Jokes work because they’re timed and because they have a certain impact. So, doing it today is much better, because you can actually show one drawing at a time so nobody knows what drawing comes next.
Onda: What’s the future of animation?
Minkoff: I think the future is very bright. Animation is a very flexible medium. I think that it is entirely untapped and unexplored. If you look at the tiny, tiny thimble full of animated movies compared to the rest of the live-action movies that have been made, there are just so many fewer films. And so many of them, certainly recently, have been made in a very narrow band of content – for kids and families. I think animation movies could be of many things. I think that, eventually, there will be movies maybe not for kids, but they’ll be animated and still work for an audience. You look at a movie like “Gravity,” and it’s virtually almost an animated movie. I think the two forms are blending together.
“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” is now available to own with XFINITY On Demand weeks before rental and DVD. Click here for more information.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.