IAR Interview: Director Rob Minkoff and Ty Burrell Talk 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

Wednesday, 05 March 2014 16:44 Written by  iamrogue
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IAR Interview: Director Rob Minkoff and Ty Burrell Talk 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

Together, Mr. Peabody & Sherman have hopped, skipped, and jumped through the ages, traveling through time itself to gab with the likes of Johannes Gutenberg, Genghis Khan, and Marie Antoinette.

This Friday, the world's smartest living creature and his adopted human son explore the circuits of time on the big screen for the first time in their fifty-five year history.

Peabody and his ward go all the way back to 1959, when Peabody's Improbable History was a recurring segment on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Using a device of Peabody's own invention, the WABAC machine, the duo went on educational jaunts throughout history, and their adventures influenced much of the time travel cinema of the last half-century.

Yet only now are they getting a movie of their own.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman isn't just a long overdue feature for a durable pair of pop culture artifacts, though.  It's also the culmination of more than a decade of effort on the part of director Rob Minkoff.

Late last year, IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was invited to 20th Century Fox to get an early look at Mr. Peabody & Sherman.  While there, he also had the opportunity to speak with Minkoff and Ty Burrell, the Modern Family star lending his voice to Mr. Peabody in the brilliant beagle's long-awaited theatrical debut.

Long ago, when Minkoff first began developing a film for these characters, it was conceived of as mixture of live action and CGI.  After all, the co-director of The Lion King also helmed Stuart Little and The Haunted Mansion

Even once it became clear that Mr. Peabody & Sherman would be a entirely animated, the filmmakers stills faced sundry choices in expanding the Improbable History style to the a full-length feature film. 

"One of the primary considerations that we made in making this film was we had a big choice to make early on because we thought this could be a story that takes place in a single historical episode," Minkoff explained.  Though early versions of the story took place almost entirely in ancient Egypt, just one of many stops Peabody, Sherman, and Sherman's squeeze Penny visit in the final movie. "We actually experimented quite a long time with that, but there was something always tugging at us to liberate from that and to actually get to meet a variety of historical figures. Getting to the point where you actually figured out which ones were gonna be in the movie actually took quite a long time."

"Ultimately what we were looking for were sequences that helped tell the story in a metaphorical way. We were looking for opportunities of not just going to a particular history, but it had to have some reflection back on the characters and what they were going through throughout the course of the story. There were so many and it was so varied we have an entire movie cut together of all the places we were not going. I would love to be able to play that for you now. For example we went to Nazi Germany, Modesto, we went to all sorts of places," Minkoff told Jami. "It was just a process of winnowing out."

Finding the right actor to voice Mr. Peabody presented its own set of challenges.  The character's distinctive voice was originally provided by Bill Scott, who also gave aural life to Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right, but Scott passed away almost thirty years ago.

Burrell, best known as Modern Family's lovably spastic Phil Dunphy, takes over over as the canine genius and two-time Olympic medalist originated by Scott, who, he said, "was just an incredible voice actor. I have a disturbingly low voice, which has given me trouble going back to when I was about Sherman's age trying to flirt with girls and sounding like this. Having to find that in my own register and make it my own has been fun."

In finding just the right voice for Peabody, Minkoff said, "At first we were thinking would we have to find somebody who just did a Bill Scott impression? We quickly came to the conclusion that that would be a bad idea 'cause we couldn't really find anyone that did that."

For a time, Robert Downey Jr. was on board to play Peabody before Burrell, who also stars in this month's Muppets Most Wanted, became involved in the project.  Eventually, though, Minkoff and company concluded that Burrell could strike exactly the right balance.

"When we started to listen to Ty's voice as we do in animation obviously before we talk to Ty we steal something of him and put it against the character we found that he embodied all the different aspects we were trying to convey," the director explained. "Not just the intellect or the suave personality, but somehow there was an underlying warmth that we really, really liked and wanted to bring to this character."

The film's voice cast is a murderers' row of comedic ringers that includes Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann, Stanley Tucci, Mel Brooks (!), Allison Janney, Lake Bell, Patrick Warburton, Stephen Tobolowsky, and even Burrell's Modern Family daughter Ariel Winter.

Of course, recording roles in big-time animated features is a famously hermetic experience in which the actors rarely interact face to face. "We did have one day where Max Charles, a really incredible young actor who played Sherman, when we were in the studio together," Burrell said. "And it was really fun to really get to see his energy and person. I think it really does inform the performance going forward."

Considering that he's an impossibly ingenious canine who has triumphed in seemingly every sphere of human accomplishment, Peabody could be a slippery character to grasp for any actor, but the actor explained, "I basically just stick to the root of the objective of Peabody."

Peabody, Burrell said, has "taken in this young boy to do the right thing and sort of sees it as a mentor-protege relationship, but I think over time he realizes that he loves Sherman is trying to that's sort of his weakness is the irrational and trying to figure out how to be a good dad. I think that's underneath everything. You kind of try a million different things with that sort of being the bedrock."

Just as Ted Key's Peabody's Improbable History provided surprisingly sophisticated introductions to historical figures and narratives, Burrell said that Mr. Peabody & Sherman, "will allow kids to put personalities to these names, to these historical figures. And maybe draw them in to learning more about it. I found that really cool throughout the whole process."

"When I was a kid," recalled Minkoff, "there was so much that I learned from cartoons. It was usually snuck in whether it was classical music I remember from great Bugs Bunny cartoons or Mr. Peabody and Sherman or so many others and I think that's what's really important ultimately when you're making stories and movies that do have kids as an audience. It's really important and was always important to me when I got started working at Disney, that you never want to talk down to kids. You want to shoot over their heads. A lot of times people will say, 'Oh they're not going to know this. I say, 'Yeah, but how are they going to learn it?'"

"M hope is that they'll see it here and maybe get more interested in it. I was the beneficiary of great teachers when I was in elementary school and high school. I had great history teachers and the reason they were great is because they knew how to bring it to life in a way that made it a story that was compelling about characters that I was interested in. And when you hear history told in that way, it's fascinating," Minkoff concluded. "It's sad when you hear people think of history as a kind of lifeless, dead, boring thing because it's really not. Every story that you've ever told lives in history

Mr. Peabody & Sherman go zipping through history in theaters this Friday, March 7th.

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