The Past Ain’t What It Used to Be!

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

How Rob Minkoff and his team at DreamWorks assembled a shiny, new version of Jay Ward’s classic cartoon Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

Recreating the past can be a tricky proposition, particularly if the past involves a beloved boomer television show like Rocky and His Friends. Fortunately, the team behind DreamWorks’ Mr. Peabody & Sherman were not looking to replicate Jay Ward’s classic Peabody’s Improbable History, about an urbane, canine brainiac and his “pet” boy who travel in time and discover the truth about history’s most famous personages, so much as use it as the basis for a new and expanded story. While the original characters are essentially a comedic non-sequitur, director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) saw an opportunity for greater depth.

“It’s really about the relationship between the two characters…I really loved the shorts growing up and always had a fond place in my heart for them, they’re a classic comedy pair, but obviously it was important for us to go beyond the original series.” — Director Rob Minkoff

“It’s really the relationship between the two characters,” says Minkoff, who began talking about a Peabody and Sherman feature in 2002. “I really loved the shorts growing up and always had a fond place in my heart for them, they’re a classic comedy pair, but obviously it was important for us to go beyond the original series.”

In Mr. Peabody & Sherman we witness the genesis of the team, as baby Sherman is legally adopted by Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), whose modernist Manhattan apartment contains a time machine, the WABAC. Trouble begins when Sherman starts public school and has to deal with the other kids, particularly a young girl named Penny, to whom Sherman impulsively shows the WABAC. What starts as a joyride through history ultimately threatens to shred the fabric of time itself. Penny, Minkoff says, “was created to try and get under the skin a little bit of the relationship between Peabody and Sherman, and what might happen to see it evolve.”

Of course, the central gag of the original was that most of history’s iconic figures couldn’t have found the exit in an open field without a map, and require the help of Mr. Peabody to fulfill their legacy. Here the likes of Leonardo, Mona Lisa and Agamemnon may be a bit more aware and the emphasis, at least visually, is on the historical backdrops. These include Ancient Egypt, Troy, the Renaissance and the French Revolution, with brief stops in the Ice Age, Elizabethan England and Kitty Hawk. “The idea was for each time period to have a very unique look, and also for the time periods to have some relationship to how they exist in the popular imagination,” says production designer David James. “In da Vinci’s Renaissance Italy, the color palletes are lifted directly from Renaissance art.”

Walk Cycle Like an Egyptian

The same doesn’t hold as true for the film’s Ancient Egypt sequences. “I started working at DreamWorks while we were making The Prince of Egypt,” James says, “and there was an absolute mandate not to put Easter Eggs in the film, especially not in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. But one made it in, a Kareem Abdul Jabbar hieroglyph, and he’s doing a sky hook. I reminded Jeffrey [Katzenberg] of this and said, ‘Just so you know, every hieroglyph in [Mr. Peabody] is going to be a Sergio Aragones-type marginalia joke.” Sharp eyes may also spot a traditional animation desk in Leonardo’s attic, since, as James notes, “We figured da Vinci would be a 2D guy.” Other visual “eggs” to hunt for include portraits of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Jay Ward himself.

“Jay Ward’s daughter, Tiffany, who grew up with these characters as part of her childhood [and who co-executive produced the film], approved all of the designs and said of Mr. Peabody’s apartment, ‘Jay would have lived in that place himself.’” — Production designer David James

Even the settings for the film’s present day scenes are slightly retro. “We wanted to create the contemporary world of Manhattan to be kind of mid-century so it would evoke memories of the original period the show was on television,” says Minkoff. For his part, James describes Peabody’s aerial Playboy Moderne pad as “the Farnsworth House meets Fallingwater meets the Seagram’s Building.” He adds, “Jay Ward’s daughter Tiffany, who grew up with these characters as part of her childhood [and who co-executive produced the film], approved all of the designs and said of Mr. Peabody’s apartment, ‘Jay would have lived in that place himself.’”

Regarding another hallmark of all Ward productions, their sterling voice casts, Minkoff states he was not interested in imitations. “We thought we could try to do a voice replicating Bill Scott [as Peabody], but I have to say I’m always a little disappointed [with imitations],” he says. “In the original show, a lot of times the historical figures spoke with a Brooklyn accent, no matter where they were from. We actually tried that but found that we missed something of the character of the places we were going.”

One of the first decisions the director made was to ensure that the voice of Sherman was provided by a real child actor––in this case, 10-year-old Max Charles––rather than an adult like Walter Tetley who, despite his pre-pubescent voice, was in his mid-forties while essaying the role in the original (and while June Foray, the last remaining member of the Jay Ward stock company, is not in the film, she voices her signature creation, Rocky the Flying Squirrel, in a new short that will front Mr. Peabody & Sherman).

Unlike a lot of current 3D animated films, Mr. Peabody & Sherman does not present highly stylized characters in photorealistic surroundings. “It’s an animated film, after all,” James notes, “and the whole point is to take artistic license. We paid a lot of attention to this. The wood textures, for instance–and brick, and the patterning on cobblestones or even fabric–has a cartoon nature to it. We are keenly aware that we are starting with very beloved and very simple source material.”

Given the enormous range of possibilities of historical eras to choose from and send up (which bodes well for potential sequels), the final selections, Minkoff says, were chosen because they convey something about the Peabody and Sherman relationship. One, however, did not make it in the final cut. “We did have a sequence in Ancient Rome with Caligula,” Minkoff reveals. “We went from Caligula to Nero in the same scene, but we thought the Caligula plot was taking it a little too far. For a variety of reasons we ultimately decided not to go to Ancient Rome, but to Troy instead.”

Jay Ward’s Caligula? The mind boggles.

Fox will release DreamWorks Animation’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman in theaters on March 7.