When sitting down with filmmaker Rob Minkoff, one immediately gets the sense that they’re in the presence of someone who’s definitely still a kid at heart. It’s almost disarming just how young the 51 year old filmmaker looks in person and it’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years now since his biggest success as the director of The Lion King for Disney back in 1994. One has to immediately wonder just how much younger he looked back then and how much more energy he had back then because sitting in a room with him in 2014 in a Toronto hotel he seems like someone who hasn’t aged a day in years. He speaks with a great deal of warmth, exuberance, and pure joy when talking about his latest project, and yet he explains his filmmaking process in much the same thoughtful way as a 20 year cinematic veteran would.
Maybe he has a WABAC machine like the heroes of his latest animated adventure, Mr. Peabody and Sherman (in theatres this Friday), Minkoff’s first film with DreamWorks Animation and his first completely animated feature since The Lion King. It’s not that Minkoff didn’t work for those twenty years, though. He found another smash success in 1999 with the live action and animation hybrid Stuart Little, and he also directed the special effects heavy live action films The Haunted Mansion (with Eddie Murphy in 2003) and the Jet Li/Jackie Chan team-up The Forbidden Kingdom in 2008.
Based on the cartoon that often aired as part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show in the early 1960s from animation legend Jay Ward, the big screen adaptation takes the tale of a dog with a professorial air, his adopted son, and his time machine back to its roots while making slight updates for modern audiences. The bespectacled and bow-tied Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burell, doing an uncannily spot on take on famed voice actor Bill Scott’s original character) is watching his young charge Sherman (10-year old Max Charles) finally growing up enough to embark on his first day of school. A run-in with a bullying classmate named Penny (Ariel Winter) leads to a situation where Peabody might lose custody over the boy her worked so hard to raise and adopt in the first place. But before Peabody can smoothing things over with Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann) and stop Sherman’s evil teacher (Allison Janney) from doing anything rash, the kids take off unsupervised in the time machine and end up making things far worse… possibly for the history of all humanity.
A long time fan and admirer of Ward’s work, Minkoff has worked for years to bring the adventures of Mr. Peabody and Sherman to the big screen, and he’s eager to share the results not only with younger people who might not be as familiar with the tale of a dog and his boy, but also with adults who grew up with the show that can appreciate the same kind of witty banter and historical skewering that made the original shorts so much fun to watch in the first place.
Last week we talked with Minkoff about balancing the cartoon’s old school feel with new school storytelling techniques, what it’s like returning to animation, how long the film was in development, why he’s generally averse to overdoing pop culture references in films, and why Jay Ward’s work stands up so well on its own after so long.
Dork Shelf: Like many kids who grew up in the early 90s, I was a huge fan of your work when I was younger, but I was also a huge fan of Peabody and Sherman growing up. That was always my favourite part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show when I was growing up, and I think you do a great job of balancing what made the original cartoon really fun and hip for someone like me who was a history nerd growing up, but also making it just updated enough with just enough modern themes that it doesn’t feel like a forced and potentially focus grouped to death view of what the characters should be today. It’s an organic way to build upon the story. So what’s it like taking this already well known, older cartoon duo and trying to place them into the setting of a modern family film?
Rob Minkoff: You know, for me it was less about changing anything in the story than it was about sort of coming at it from a modern perspective. I sort of just said “What if they existed in our time,” but we never went out of our way to ever change who these characters were at a very basic level. We certainly took some liberties with the character of Sherman just because we actually had him played by a kid here instead of an older actor. But Mr. Peabody is as faithful of a character to the original as I could possibly do. That was always the intention.
I grew up loving Mr. Peabody and always wanted to go on sort of those trips through the WABAC and go back and visit all these places and meet these people and have a lot of fun doing that. That was really the only main reason that I needed to make this movie. He’s just a great character, and this relationship that he has with Sherman is just as great, but in a way it’s something that we could open up a bit more once we adapted it.
The father and son aspect of the story is actually part of the original series. A lot of people don’t remember it now, but that first episode of the series is the adoption of Sherman by Mr. Peabody. There’s a lawyer who’s arguing against it and saying that a dog is not fit to be the father of a boy, and then the judge says that if a boy can adopt a dog, then a dog can adopt a boy, which we come back to in this film. We’re really faithful to that part of it and that was something that we really wanted to open up and bring to the front while making this into a feature.
I think two things: First, the creation of Penny as a character and putting her into the movie helps to modernize things in a way, because she’s a lot more of a modern child and a modern character. I think that Sherman here is still very much the same kind of really innocent kind of kid who could have been from any time of the character’s creation. He’s a naive character and that was something that was really true of the show. He was always so eager and so sweet no matter what was happening. (laughs and adopts high-pitched Sherman-like voice) “Gee, Mr. Peabody, what are we gonna do next?!?”
But back then, Sherman was played by a 40 year old man, and that was something that we wanted to stay away from and kind of update here. I think if we tried to copy the original too much I was always afraid that someone would think that we were somehow making fun of the material or that it would come across as something really ironic. Remember when The Brady Bunch had those movies and they were kind of this modern update of The Brady Bunch? All they really did was just point out how weird they are and how little they make sense and how the world has changed around them.
DS: They’re not really time travellers or anything, but they’re out of touch…
RM: Exactly! They’re out of time and out of touch, but for us it was just sort of stepping back and saying “I really don’t want Mr. Peabody to feel like he’s out of touch.” I always thought he was cool! Not just in the sense that he was worldly, but he was always really well spoken and he knew a lot of things about a lot of different topics, and he even had a kind of style to him that was all his own. You get a look at his apartment in the old cartoons and there’s, like, these bearskin rugs and great chairs. It looked like something out of a Playboy magazine from that era. He was just sort of this learned bachelor that just happened to have a kid, and it was those kinds of things that made me so interested in him as a character. It was certainly a dated character, but there are still ways to make that same kind of character today and make him still have that cool sense of style.
DS: He certainly has some of that even in his new apartment, which is kind of that classically cool kind of condo lifestyle.
RM: Yeah! It’s a little bit Mad Men. That was exactly what we were going for. That kind of retro cool that still works today.
DS: Sherman as a character is still the same sort of naive character, but he’s also unquestionably a really smart and emotionally intelligent kid, and I think quite often people don’t really give enough credit to kids in animated films. They aren’t always smarter than the adults and constantly spouting off pop culture references all the time just to keep people invested all the time. The humour here sticks to what the show stuck to, which was to make sure it was always situational and observational. It’s a harder kind of comedy to pull off, and when I have talked to other animators about their films in the past, they always say that it’s always about the story and that the story comes first. And here you have a great story, but there’s also trying to balance that with making sure the dialogue sounds like it fits the film. It’s something that a lot of films geared towards a younger crowd seem to forget about and instead just go for the pop culture gags and take the cheap and easy route. What was it like moving away from that kind of tendency that these movies sometime have?
RM: Really interestingly I have always had an aversion to that because quite simply what might be funny today may not be funny tomorrow. I grew up always loving animation because for me at the time animation always really had this timeless quality and it could play to audiences today, tomorrow, and even long after that.
DS: Which is great for a movie about time travel!
RM: (laughs) Exactly! So for me it’s always a tricky thing and there are certain moments that you run into and you kind of have to give in a little bit to those tendencies, but not a lot.
I think the best example of that for me would be when we were working on The Lion King. If you remember the movie, there’s the scene where Timon and Pumbaa are creating a diversion they sing a Hawaiian war chant. (sings the song very quickly) And when we pitched that scene the response that we got back from the studio was that maybe we should switch that to “Stayin’ Alive.” Which, of course, we were, like, (puts heads in his hands) “UUUGGGGGGHHHHH. NO.” (laughs) Because something like a made up Hawaiian war chant is something that can be timeless and classic and funny, but it’s not so rooted in one cultural moment that it’s remembered for. You hear “Stayin’ Alive” and you’re automatically going to think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. It’s so wrong because doing that in Africa with character that wouldn’t understand that reference if it was put in front of them just isn’t going to work for the story.
We DID do it in there with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” but that song fits the setting and if you listen to the lyrics it can have that same kind of timeless connection to the story that’s trying to be told there.
And I mean, in this film we have certain references, as well. For me it can be a really anachronistic thing, but it can’t break the reality of the movie.
DS: And here when you have your character travelling to different time periods where those references wouldn’t make sense in terms of the story. And it only gets anachronistic during the climax of the film where all of time has to come sort of crashing in on itself.
RM: Absolutely. 100%. You can tell we took some pretty big liberties when we have Agamemnon saying “Don’t taze me, bro,” which you can see in the trailer, and believe me when I say that we did have a lot of discussions about that and where he would have heard something like that and who he could have been quoting. Those are things that just seem just funny enough to sort of go for it in the moment and not worry too much about them. Plus they have to come at a point that’s so crazy that anything could really happen.
DS: And also by that point you have sort of acclimated the audience to having a joke like that catch them off guard because they weren’t expecting it.
RM: Yeah, if you use those sparingly they can get some pretty big reactions.
DS: This is sort of your big come back to full-on animated filmmaking for you after quite some time. I suppose for an animator it’s a bit like riding a bike in that you never forget what you’re doing, but what’s it like coming back from doing a lot of live action films to a new, fully animated one?
RM: The crazy thing is that I was working on Stuart Little, which arguably had a lot of animation in it depending on how you define that, when I had the first conversations about making Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Honestly, I didn’t intend for it to be forever. (laughs)
DS: So it was just like any classic animated film that ultimately took 25 years or so to make.
RM: Basically, yes. (laughs) But the big difference is that this is the first film that I have done that’s entirely CGI. I mean, there was quite a bit in Stuart Little, but the character itself was not the entire world of that film. So doing a film that was entirely top to bottom CG and doing it in 3D were certainly big leaps and jumps that happened during that interim. Going from a 2D animated feature like The Lion King to something like this is a huge leap in terms of the technology being used.
But what’s really interesting is that animated films today are really very similarly made to a live action movie, which was great for me. The tools and the techniques are now a lot more parallel. In a live action movie you can use a dolly for a dolly shot or a tracking shot. In a traditional animated movie, you would never ever talk about a dolly because there’s no way to do that. In an traditionally animated film you could have a pan, but that pan could also only go just so far. It’s just slinging the camera from one side to the other.
But now with a 3D movie and 3D movies, you have a new kind of virtual environment that you can create and you have a whole new virtual camera. If you want to have that dolly shot you say where you want to set up the camera and see something that’s actually in perspective. Suddenly you’re actually making a live action movie that just happens to be taking place entirely inside of a computer. That was really the biggest difference.
DS: I wanted to ask you in particular what it’s like within this new kind of animation for you to be working in what it’s like creating the big, sort of epic set pieces that often go hand in hand with an adventure like this. I know in The Lion King you had sequences like the stampede which seems like it would be a massive undertaking, and here early on you have Peabody and Sherman escaping from the French Revolution through the sewers and everything starts exploding around them on the way out. What’s it like to work on those scenes with a lot of moving parts with this new technology?
RM: Well, scenes like that are so detail oriented that they definitely take a huge, extra effort from everyone to make them work, but what made this film unusual – even by the standards of making animated movies today – is that we had to create hundreds of individual characters for these scenes. In a typical animated movie, you would have one location or one set and you would have extras in the movie that would populate this world, but they would come from one design and one template. For this movie we had to have unique designs for unique individuals. We had to have them in France, Egypt, Troy, and anywhere we went, and everywhere that we went we had to have an entirely different set of characters. We ended up creating over 3,900 individual characters for this movie, and that had never been done before.
But as far as action set pieces go, again, it all starts at the storyboard, and that’s just the same as it has ever been. That hasn’t changed. But today, you go through this kind of a pre-viz process that didn’t really exist before, and that’s a lot more like a live action film. For example, something like Gravity was something that was plotted out almost entirely in pre-viz before they shot it, and then most of it was computer generated anyway. Some of those tools and techniques are the exact same now.
One of the fun things about these big worlds that you can work within and that you have to stage these kinds of elaborate sequences in, is that now you can actually get a feeling for these sets and locations as actual places. In traditional animation there’s no reality to it. It’s a painting or a drawing and it’s always flat. Even if you’re aware that you’re trying to create a sense of dimensional space, you know that you are always looking at a flat painting while you’re making it. And now in retrospect with the advent of CGI, you can look back on traditionally animated features and they look even more flat than they did in the first place. Your brain at one time allowed you to believe that there was some sort of dimension to it that really isn’t there as much anymore.
Today, we’re creating these three dimensional worlds and they look real. And in 3D you can see every aspect of them. You can see dimension, depth, and texture, and it creates this kind of reality to go along with the fantasy, which is something that I had a lot of fun working on.
DS: What do you think it is about Jay Ward’s work that has been able to endure despite him never really being a household name on the level of someone like a Walt Disney or someone like that? He’s someone that if you talk to people who love animation, they know him immediately. It’s kind of like a comedian that’s known for being a “comic’s comic,” someone that everyone in the industry kind of looks up to and admires throughout the years.
RM: A lot of it is sensibility. You always see his sense of humour through all of his productions. The sense of style that he had from something like Super Chicken to George of the Jungle to Mr. Peabody and Sherman all had a way of looking at the world that was really sophisticated and kind of satirical and subversive, and he was genuinely funny. That particular sensibility never goes out of style.