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Mr Peabody & Sherman - Rob Minkoff interview

Mr Peabody & Sherman

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROB Minkoff talks about some of the challenges of bringing Mr Peabody & Sherman to the big screen and why the film has long been a passion project for him.

He also talks about assembling his voice cast, including Max Charles as Sherman and Ty Burrell as Mr Peabody, and why it was important to ensure the film played to both children and adults – much like the original short cartoons.

Q. It’s fair to say this is a passion project, which has been 10 years in the making. So, what was it about Peabody and Sherman that made you want to bring this to the big screen for so long?
Rob Minkoff: Well, when I was a kid I watched the show, Rocky & Bullwinkle, and remembered Peabody and Sherman very well and I think, for me, the characters were indelible and kind of iconic. I loved the fact that the boy and his dog relationship was turned on its head. So, for me, I was really just a fan. And about 10 years ago it was suggested to me, or I was asked the question “would I be interested in directing a film of these characters?” And I immediately said “yes”. We didn’t know at the time whether it would be a live action film… in fact, it was suggested by the people involved that it would be live action and, at first, I thought that would be OK. But about a year into the process, it started to really occur to me that the best and only way to do it would be completely in animation.

Q. These cartoons were first aired in the late ’50s, so what were the elements that you really wanted to keep from those originals and what were the things you felt needed updating for a modern audience?
Rob Minkoff: Well, for me it was really the characters that we wanted to be true to as much as possible. I think if you look back at the show, you’ll see that we’re being relatively faithful, certainly with Mr Peabody but maybe slightly less with Sherman. Sherman was actually played in the original cartoon show by, like, a 40-year-old man. So, we decided we were going to go for a kid. He’s sort of a foil for Mr Peabody. The other thing is they would always meet historical figures and it was always lop-sided and they were always a skewed version of what you might expect them to be, and they were invariably always on the verge of their greatest achievement. But for some reason, they were always struggling to succeed in what they were doing and Mr Peabody would actually help them. In every episode, he would manage to convince them to do something or would give them the bright ideas to do the thing that they were famous for. So, in some crazy way Mr Peabody turns out to be responsible for everything that ever happened. So, those were the things that we kind of wanted to be true to and keep for this movie.

Q. Was keeping the whole pun thing going important too?
Rob Minkoff: Oh definitely. Yes… puns. Puns are a very specific kind of thing and there are a lot of devotees of the pun.

Q. How did you decide which period in history you would go to?
Rob Minkoff: Sure, it was a bit of a problem. There were too many good ideas. But we ended up… we started this project quite a long time ago. I think I mentioned it was 2005, so we had many, many adventures and things that did not end up in the film. But the ones we did end up with had this sort of a cross section of metaphorically tying into the homage story and being about something that helped propel the relationship between Peabody and Sherman and to a degree we tried to pick events and characters that the audience might be aware of.

Q. Did I notice there’s now something of Ty Burrell in Peabody too?
Rob Minkoff: In animation that’s very common. You go through a design process typically before you have the actor. But then once you do cast the actor there is always something that the actor brings. We actually shoot video of the actor in all the sessions, so the animators have the chance to reference that and add things appropriately.

Q. The central relationship does really echo a modern family set-up, so to speak, with regard to single parents, adoption, gay adoption, etc. Was that a consideration when exploring this dynamic?
Rob Minkoff: Yes. What happened was when we were developing this as a film we just simply asked ourselves the question: “What would it be like to be in this kind of a family today?” And so absolutely that did come up. It’s the corner of the conflict of the piece that the woman, Mrs Grunion, played by Allison Janney, she is not supportive of this while relationship. She thinks a dog adopting a boy is wrong. So, yes, there is that. What’s interesting to us is that given how old this is again, it was still in its own way dealing with those issues, but just in maybe a more innocent time.

Q. You obviously spent a long time on this and these characters have been around for such a long time, but how did you feel when you first heard that rival animation Free Birds also had a time-travel element?
Rob Minkoff: Well, it’s funny because I have been at this for a very long time but I was actually offered the job of directing that movie. At the time it was called Time Turkeys. But I thought I can’t make a movie that’s called Turkey because that was too easy. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t really speak for it, but it was slightly unfortunate. But we sort of feel like this has the history.

Q. The look of Sherman reminded me of Jonathan Lipnicki [who starred in Minkoff’s Stuart Little] but that was some time ago. So, how did you go about casting Max Charles?
Rob Minkoff: Well, interesting story. Jonathan Lipnicki was in the movie Jerry Maguire. I saw that movie and I went: “Oh my God.” He was so little. So, when we were doing Stuart Little we were looking at every kid you could imagine and then I said: “What about Jonathan Lipnicki?” And the studio said: “Are you crazy? He’s too young to do this movie!” He was seven. I said: “I know, it’s probably going to be hard…” There is this old addage never to work with animals or kids. But we cast him anyway. And the same thing is true of Max Charles in this. He’s actually eight when we found him and, again, people were like: “Are you sure? He’s so young…” But he’s great. And we searched high and low sometimes for just the right actor. Kids are particularly difficult because you can find kids who are actors, and they are very… in some ways unnatural. They know how to perform and they can act and yet there’s something a little artificial about them. So, it was really important to me to find a genuine charm.

Q. Were you conscious of making sure this played to both children and adults?
Rob Minkoff: Yeah. But if you look at the original it was very much the same way. On the face of it, it looks like it’s for kids but it really plays to adults. I happen to have the good fortune to be mentored by one of the greats of animation, Chuck Jones, who directed some of the best Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Daffy Duck cartoons. I met him when I was 18-years-old as a student and the first question I asked him was whether they knew when they made those films that they were going to be so well loved and last for such a long time. And we also talked about whether they made them for kids. And he said no, they never really made them for kids at all… we made them for ourselves. So, you have to make yourself laugh and enjoy it yourself and then it has that, without being overly intentional.

Q. How did you go about getting the rest of your voice cast?
Rob Minkoff: It was really about identifying who was the character was and who might be the best for the role. We were actually just working with Stanley Tucci, who is Leonardo da Vinci, who is a fantastic character actor. And Allison Janney playing Grunion… and Patrick Warburton is playing Agamemnon. So, it’s about trying to find the best voice for the job.

Read our review of Mr Peabody & Sherman

Read our interview with Ty Burrell