By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—As the Simpsons characters were introduced in short segments on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” Mr. Peabody and Sherman were characters introduced on the animated series “Rocky and his Friends” and “The Bullwinkle Show,” produced by Jay Ward in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Mr. Peabody, the world’s smartest animated beagle (sorry Snoopy), appeared in “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments, created by Ted Key, with the title character voiced by actor Bill Scott while Sherman, his adopted human child, was voiced by Walter Tetley.
More than 50 years later, the brainiac beagle and his boy are getting their own big screen treatment in the animated movie “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” from DreamWorks Animation, the makers of “Shrek” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” Directed by Jay Minkoff (“The Lion King,” “Stuart Little”), and penned by screenwriter Craig Wright, the time-traveling adventure comedy is based on Ward’s original characters. The duo has a modern 3-D look yet the story maintains the sharp wit of the original 2-D cartoons. Tiffany Ward, daughter of the late animator, has made sure of that as an executive producer on the movie.
Giving voice to Mr. Peabody is Ty Burrell, best known for his starring role as Phil Dunphy on the popular ABC TV series “Modern Family.” Like Scott before him, Burrell speaks in a low baritone voice that captures the authority of Mr. Peabody, who an inventor, architect, chef, Nobel laureate, Olympic medalist, businessman and, most notably, a historian. Having adopted Sherman, a human boy of approximately eight, he is able to teach his young protégé about the world’s history by taking him on adventures in his WABAC (pronounced wayback) machine.
When Sherman (voiced by child actor Max Charles) gets in a dispute with a classmate at school, the girl and her family are invited over to Mr. Peabody’s penthouse apartment for dinner to smooth things over. Things go haywire when Sherman sneaks Penny (voiced by Ariel Winter) into the WABAC machine. Their adventures take them through Paris (where they witness the French Revolution), Italy (where they meet Leonardo da Vinci) ancient Egypt (where they meet King Tut) and ancient Greece (where they board the Trojan horse), but a glitch arises that threatens to unravel the entire space-time continuum, and it’s up to Mr. Peabody to save the kids and the world.
Burrell, who remembers watching the Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoons as a child, was tickled when he got the chance to voice the genius beagle. He appreciated that it was in good hands with Minkoff. He also knew that Ward would ensure the integrity of the original material since she has run Ward Productions Inc., since her father’s death in 1989. She also serves as president of Bullwinkle Studios, a joint venture between Ward Productions and Classic Media.
The trio spoke recently about bringing the beloved animated characters to the big screen for the first time, and how fans, both long-term and new, will be in for a time-traveling treat.
Burrell, who is father to two daughters, says he knew he had big shoes to fill in taking over the role from the late Bill Scott (who died in 1985).
“He was just an incredible voice actor,” says the actor, sitting in a theater on the 20th Century Fox lot where clips of the movie are being shown to the press in advance of the film’s release. “I have a disturbingly low voice, which has given me trouble going back to the time that I was Sherman’s age trying to flirt with girls and sounding like this. Having to find (Mr. Peabody’s) voice in my own register and make it my own has been fun, and it’s also just fun to play somebody that you’re not, which is somebody who actually is sophisticated.
Minkoff says it was daunting, at first, to find the right voice for Mr. Peabody.
“We were thinking would we have to find someone who could do a Bill Scott impression,” he says. “We quickly came to the conclusion that that would be a bad idea. So we tried to steal something of him and put it against the character, we found that he kind of embodied all the aspects of the character we were trying to convey, not just the intellect or the suave personality. Somehow there was this underlying warmth that we really liked in Ty, and wanted to bring that to this character.”
Ward recalls that Minkoff approached her about turning the beloved cartoon into a movie about 10 years ago.
“I figured what better caretaker could there be than Rob,” she says, smiling. “It’s taken that long to get to the correct phase. We wanted it to be perfect and I think it is.”
While most actors rarely get to work directly with the other performers on animated movies these days, Burrell says he was fortunate to work in the recording studio with 10-year-old Max Charles, who voices Sherman in the movie.
“He’s an incredible young actor,” praises Burrell. “ When we were in the studio together, it was really fun to get to see his energy in person. I think it really did inform my performance. This whole experience was an incredible thing.”
Burrell says the project really came together for him when he saw the final cut of the movie long after he finished his recording sessions.
“The process is very unusual,” he says. “I go in with Rob, and we do a lot of versions of every scene and line so the animators have plenty to choose from, but I don’t know what the result is going to be. On my TV show and in films, you have a good idea of what’s scene’s going to be kept. So this has been really fun and an incredibly pleasant surprise.”
Burrell likes that over the course of the film, Mr. Peabody and Sherman’s relationship evolves.
“He’s taken in this boy to do the right thing, and he sees this as a mentor-protege relationship,” he observes. “Then, over time, he realizes loves Sherman.”
Ward says her dad would mostly likely be amazed by the movie, which is being shown in 3-D.
“Humor was his No. 1 key element in his cartoons,” she says. “I also think he would be amazed at the absolutely incredible animation. He always wanted better animation although the shows were not known for their good animation at all.
“He really would like the incredible Mr. Peabody puns and Sherman’s hilariously funny antics, and their time travel with the WABAC machine. He absolutely would have loved working with the brilliant Rob Minkoff and the fabulous team at DreamWorks Animation. He would have been most impressed with Rob’s and the team’s passionate pursuit of keeping the characters pure and bringing them into the 21st century rather than remake them and change them.”
Ward adds that in the 24 years since she took over the helm of her father’s studio, “this is the best, the purest, and the funniest project I’ve worked on.”
She says the script would have been “Jay Rated,” meaning that it would meet with her dad’s approval.
“What a way to keep the legacy alive for my dad,” she says. “It’s been a total labor of love.”
She says the animators were able to get little details just as her father would have liked them, such as Mr. Peabody’s modernistic penthouse apartment atop a skyscraper.
“His favorite building in New York was The Seagram Building,” she notes. “And Peabody’s the apartment looks like an apartment atop that building. It looks just like that, which is eerie. You can see how connected Rob and I were from the beginning. He envisioned it without knowing how much my father liked that building.”
Burrell says that while the movie isn’t meant to be strictly educational for children, younger viewers may be inspired to study further the historic eras visited by the characters in the film.
“It will allow kids to put personalities to these historical figures, and maybe draw them in to learning more about it,” he says. “Education has changed a lot since I went to grade school but I think it was a dry, pretty textbook experience but these characters, as depicted by the actors in the film, make it pretty cool.”
“When I was a kid, I learned so much from cartoons, whether it was classical music from Bugs Bunny cartoons or about history from Mr. Peabody and Sherman cartoons,” he says. “When you’re making movies where you have kids as an audience, you never want to talk down to them. You want to shoot over their heads. My hope is that they’ll see it here and get more interested in it. I was the beneficiary of great teachers in elementary and high school because they made the stories compelling. When you hear history told that way, it’s fascinating. It’s sad when you hear people think of history as a lifeless, dead and boring thing, because it’s really not.”
Ward believes “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” likely will introduce a whole new generation of fans to the characters her father created more than a half-century ago.
“ A lot of young kids don’t know them, but I think a lot of 30 and 40 year old parents are somewhat aware of it,” she says. “It’s my generation that remembers it better. I think anyone who sees the movie with no prior of awareness will get it, though.”
She says she feels she has served her job in preserving her father’s characters as he imagined them.
‘My concern was always the integrity of the characters and Rob was clearly on board with keeping that legacy alive,” she says. “As you can see, they’re very true to the original cartoons. It’s great that they’ve created a new version of Peabody and Sherman being the same wholesome characters they always were.”
Adds Minkoff, “I grew up watching these characters and loving them. They become part of me as a kid. So for me, it was about being true to them. When they did the original cartoons, they were in 2-D with limited animation, but that was just the form of it. The characters are what it was all about.”