A career comeback for Mr. Peabody
Brainy cartoon time traveler Mr. Peabody is back with a film, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” thanks in part to the persistence of director Rob Minkoff and Tiffany Ward, the daughter of one of Mr. Peabody’s creators, Jay Ward.
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Tuna, a Chiweenie with an overbite and more than 700,000 followers on Instagram, was there. So were Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Beethoven, Marley, Toto and several other dogs of renown.
The canine A-list had gathered in Hollywood in February to celebrate one of their own. Yes, they had also come because their trainers were tossing bits of hot dog onto the red carpet, but really, the main attraction was Mr. Peabody, the hyper-intelligent, time-traveling beagle from the 1960s cartoon shorts “Peabody’s Improbable History,” who was getting his paw prints enshrined at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
Mr. Peabody, who first attained fame in the series of wryly humorous, six-minute shorts wedged between Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right cartoons, is staging a career comeback in the new DreamWorks Animation movie “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.”
As with many aging stars, Mr. Peabody’s second act has come with some cosmetic changes as well as personal growth. That it’s happening at all is thanks largely to the persistence of his two-legged collaborators, notably director Rob Minkoff and Tiffany Ward, the daughter of one of his creators, Jay Ward.
In the original cartoon as well as the new film, which opens Friday, Mr. Peabody is a Nobel laureate, a master inventor and a fabulous dinner party host. But Minkoff and writer Craig Wright have added some emotional depth to Peabody’s relationship with Sherman, his adopted human son.
Voiced by “Modern Family’s” Ty Burrell, Mr. Peabody has trouble expressing his feelings when Sherman (Max Charles) goes off to school. When a classmate (Ariel Winter) engages in some species-ist bullying, Sherman takes his father’s greatest invention, a time travel device called the WABAC machine, for a dangerous joy ride to impress her.
With stops in ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy and revolutionary France, the film preserves many of the chief conventions of the series, including Peabody’s reliance on verbal humor.
“The adventurous thing was always going to be a part of it,” said Minkoff, who directed “The Lion King” and “Stuart Little” movies. “The question was, ‘What were we going to do to flesh out the story? How were we going to treat this as a more dimensional thing?’ The show was six minutes, the setup was superclear: a dog and his boy. Peabody says he built the time machine because a growing boy needs to get out and living in Manhattan is tough. So it was, ‘What do they do when they’re not time traveling? What’s the other side of the coin?’ ”
In 1958, Jay Ward, an entrepreneurial California real estate agent with a creative itch, persuaded General Mills to sponsor a cartoon series built around a moose and a squirrel, and enlisted UPA writer and producer Bill Scott to help him.
“They were thinking all they’d need was five minutes or so,” Tiffany Ward said in an interview with Minkoff before the paw prints ceremony. “After they signed the deal, they realized it’s a half-hour show.” To fill out the time, Jay Ward and Scott would have to add other serials, and cartoonist Ted Key suggested one about a boy with a time travel belt and a dog.
“Dad switched it around,” Tiffany Ward said, “and said, ‘Let’s make the genius the dog.’ ”
The various iterations of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which aired on ABC and NBC, were never a ratings hit, but they acquired a cult status thanks to a high/low style of humor. In one episode, Peabody and Sherman talked Beethoven out of a cooking career so he’d get back to work composing the Ninth Symphony; in another, Geronimo offered Peabody an autographed picture of Tonto and two tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm in exchange for a rocking horse.
For many kids of the 1960s and ’70s, including Minkoff, 51, “Peabody’s Improbable History” was an entertaining entry point to the social sciences.
“I loved the fact that Peabody was a teacher and that he would take Sherman on these incredible adventures to meet these crazy characters,” Minkoff said. “And I got introduced to these historical figures. As a kid, you’re like, ‘This must be important.’ And you can laugh at the silliness of it. And then, of course, later you’re learning about those figures in class, and it was good to have a little connection to it. History turned out to be my favorite subject.”
As part of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” Peabody and Sherman have lived on in syndication on cable. Since her father’s death in 1989, Tiffany Ward has developed his characters on behalf of Jay Ward Productions in other media with uneven results. There was the 1997 live-action box office hit “George of the Jungle” for Disney and the 2000 dud “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” for Universal.
“I’ve always looked at everything from his perspective or how he would handle it,” Ward said. “Dad wanted theatrical movies, but he was very reclusive and wasn’t out there marketing. One of his rules was that his characters could never be seen with other characters, but one of my visions was to be in theme parks. You have to get it down to the next generation and have the interactive part. I haven’t done anything he wouldn’t be really proud of, but there were a few changes.”
In 2011, DreamWorks Animation greenlighted the film, and Minkoff and Wright, whose credits include “United States of Tara” and “Dirty Sexy Money,” sculpted the story around a modern parenting theme.
Artists at the animation studio toyed with changing Peabody’s appearance, but largely preserved his upright, graphically spare design, bow-tie and glasses.
“This idea that Sherman would be going to school for the first time, that’s a seminal moment for parents,” said Minkoff, who has an 18-month old. “Even though he’s a dog, that’s not what it’s about. He’s a father who has a son and the relationship is going through a change.”
(Ward has dogs; Minkoff, who “does not currently,” said, almost sheepishly, “We’re building a house and we have a 1 ½ -year-old.”)