The Past Ain’t What It Used to Be!

How Rob Minkoff and his team at Dreamworks as­sem­bled a shiny, new ver­sion of Jay Ward’s clas­sic car­toon time trav­el­ers Mr. Pe­abody & Sher­man. by Michael Mal­lory

Animation Magazine - - Features -

R“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.”

ecre­at­ing 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 the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two char­ac­ters,” says Minkoff, who be­gan talk­ing about a Mr. Pe­abody & 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.”

— Di­rec­tor Rob Minkoff

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 re­quired the help of Mr. Pe­abody to ful­fill their lega­cies. 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, N.C. “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

“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

notes, “We fig­ured da Vinci would be a 2D guy.” Other vis­ual “Easter eggs” to hunt for in­clude por­traits of Rocky and Bull­win­kle and Jay Ward him­self.

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 char- ac­ters 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 pre­pubescent voice, was in his mid-40s while play­ing 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 screen­ing with Mr. Pe­abody & Sher­man).

Un­like a lot of cur­rent 3-D an­i­mated films, Mr. Pe­abody & Sher­man does not present highly styl­ized char­ac­ters in pho­to­re­al­is­tic sur­round­ings. “It’s an an­i­mated film, af­ter all,” James says, “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 were cho­sen be­cause they con­vey some­thing about the Pe­abody and Sher­man re­la­tion­ship, Minkoff says. One, how­ever, did not make it in the fi­nal cut. “We did have a se­quence in an­cient Rome with Caligula,” Minkoff says. “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 & Sher­man in the­aters on March 7.

Michael Mal­lory is an award-win­ning au­thor whose bi­b­li­og­ra­phy in­cludes Universal Stu­dios’ Mon­sters, X-Men: The Char­ac­ters and Their Uni­verse, Mar­vel and Hanna-Bar­bera Car­toons.

Be­spec­ta­cled Time Trav­el­ers:

Mr. Pe­abody and his “pet” boy Sher­man use the WABAC ma­chine to fix glitches in his­tory and clue in

the his­tor­i­cally clue­less. Their trav­els in­tro­duce them to antcient Rome (op­po­site) and Egypt (be­low left). Along for the ride is Sher­man’s school­mate Penny, (be­low right). Early de­signs for Sher­man are at

bot­tom right.

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