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Huffington Post -- How Rob Minkoff turned Mr. Peabody & Sherman into the original Modern Family

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Huffington Post -- How Rob Minkoff turned Mr. Peabody & Sherman into the original Modern Family

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It's kind of ironic that "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" has a sequence involving the Trojan Horse. Because according to what Rob Minkoff -- the director of this DreamWorks Animation production -- says, this new animated feature is actually something of a trojan horse in and of itself.

"When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of television. And I was a big, big fan of Rocky & Bullwinkle," Minkoff recalled during a recent interview. "And during the "Peabody's Improbable History" segment of that show, Mr. Peabody & Sherman would time-travel back to various eras and then interact with all of these great figures from history."

"Now you have to understand that -- because I'm just a little kid -- I have absolutely no idea who half of the historic figures that Mr. Peabody & Sherman are interacting with are. So in order to find who all these people were, I open up books, I ask questions of my teachers and my parents," Rob continued. "So to my way of thinking, it was Mr. Peabody & Sherman who actually got me interested in history. Which then wound up being my favorite subject in school and is still a huge interest of mine even today."

Rob Minkoff & Mr. Peabody at the New York premiere of Dreamworks Animation's
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman." Copyright DreamWorks Animation
. All rights reserved

So when DreamWorks Animation approached Minkoff a few years back and asked him if he'd be interested in building a full-length animated feature around these two Jay Ward characters, Rob immediately jumped at the chance. Not just because he's been a big fan of Mr. Peabody & Sherman for decades. But also -- if Minkoff & his production team did their jobs right -- this new comic time-traveling adventure might then inspire a couple of kids to become history buffs.

"Don't worry, though. The 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' movie is still very much in the style of their original segment from the old 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' show," Rob insisted. "It's still a twisted take on history that's loaded with lots of clever wordplay & silly sight gags. But I'm also hoping that there'll be a few kids out in the audience may have never heard of Mona Lisa or don't know who Leonardo Da Vinci is. And maybe once they get back home from the theater, these kids might still be curious enough that they'd then go online to learn more about these historic figures."

Mind you, in order to pull off his tricking-kids-into-being-interested-in-history trojan horse operation, Minkoff and his DWA first had to figure out how to turn this 5 minute-long segment from the old "Rocky & Bullwinkle Show" into something that could then actually support a full-length animated feature. Which -- as box office busts like 1992's "Boris and Natasha: The Movie," 1999's "Dudley Do-Right" and  2000's "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" proved -- is a lot harder than it looks.

(L to R) Renee Russo as Natasha Fatale, Jason Alexander as Boris Bandenov,
Robert DeNiro as Fearless Leader, Rocky and Bullwinkle in "The Adventures
of Rocky & Bullwinkle." Copyright 2000 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved

"For us, the breakthrough came when we realized that -- at its heart-of-hearts -- 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' is really a story about a father & son relationship," Rob said. "I mean, when Jay Ward originally quickly sketched out the premise for this show -- a super-smart dog adopts a boy and then takes him on time-traveling adventures -- he was just going for laughs. Inverting that tired old cliché of a boy & his dog to so that Jay & his writers could then do a comic routine based on a dog & his boy."

"But as we got started developing Mr. Peabody & Sherman, we decided to take that part of their original back story seriously. What would it actually be like for a dog -- a single dog, on top of everything else -- to adopt a human boy? There'd have to be people out in the world who wouldn't really like this idea, who'd then try and make life difficult for Mr. Peabody & Sherman," Minkoff continued. "Going that route with our story, adding some real emotion & conflict to the comic mix made for a far richer movie. Gave us a reason to actually care about this time-traveling dog & his boy."

Of course, then there was the challenge of finding just the right voice for Mr. Peabody. Given that Bill Scott -- the animation legend who originally voiced the world's most smartest dog -- died of a heart attack back in 1985, a canine recast was obviously in order.

Ty Burrell as Phil Dunphy on ABC's Emmy Award-winning sitcom, "Modern Family."
Copyright American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved

"I mean, when you really look at it, Mr. Peabody & Sherman were the original Modern Family. Their family bond flies in the face of convention. Which is what made us decide to take a look at ABC's Modern Family. That's where we found Ty Burrell, who turned out to be the perfect person to cast as the modern-era voice of Mr. Peabody," Rob said.

And why was Burrell -- who plays Phil Dunphy, the well-meaning but doofy Dad on that Emmy Award-winning television series -- the perfect performer to voice the world's smartest dog? Minkoff insisted that it was Burrell's natural warmth.

"The problem with a character like Mr. Peabody is -- because he's supposed to be so smart -- it's easy for a character like that to come across as being cold, above it all to an audience," Rob explained. "But Ty ... While he obviously understood the comedy of this character, he also had this natural warmth to his voice. Hearing him read the script, you really felt that -- while Mr. Peabody was still the smartest guy, er, dog in the room -- he also really cared for Sherman and always had his adopted son's best interests at heart."

(L to R) Mr. Peabody, Penny Peterson and Sherman on an Egyptian adventure
in "Mr. Peabody & Sherman." Copyright DreamWorks Animation LLC.
All rights reserved

And speaking of Modern Family ... When Minkoff and his team went looking for just the right actress to voice Penny Peterson, Sherman's grade-school love interest in this new animated feature, they didn't have to go any further than the Dunphy's middle daughter, Alex. Who is portrayed by Ariel Winter.

"And addition to Ty & Ariel, we've got Max Charles as the voice of Sherman. And behind these three, we've got all sort of big stars and comedy heavyweights in 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman' 's vocal cast. People like Mel Brooks & Stephen Colbert, Stanley Tucci, Allison Janney and Patrick Warburton. They did a great job of bringing all of the crazy historic figures that Mr. Peabody & Sherman interact with to life," Rob said.

So -- just to recap here -- "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" is a big screen reboot of  the "Peabody's Improbable History" segment of the "Rocky & Bullwinkle" TV show. It's also trying to trick kids into being interested in history while -- at the same time -- using the voices of some members of the cast of ABC's "Modern Family" as a way to ground this time-traveling story in reality, give this film some real emotional heft. Isn't that a lot to ask a single animated feature to do?

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"People used to say the same exact thing while I was working on 'The Lion King ,' " Minkoff said. "They'd ask me what that movie was supposed to be about. And I'd then have to explain that it was this action-adventure set in Africa which has a lot of comedy and also musical numbers. But at the same time, 'The Lion King' also tried to say some kind-of-ambitious and profound things about personable responsibility & being a member of a family. Oh yeah, and it stars a bunch of lions."

"But that's why I like working in animation. Which is really the most flexible of the film mediums," Rob continued. "So if you're looking to make a time-traveling adventure that's also a  relationship comedy aimed at the family audience, animation is really only the way to go because it's easy -- in this medium, anyway -- to mix genres. Take a story that's been told before but then make it new by mixing in all of these different elements."

"Of course, what really helps here is that I'm working at DreamWorks Animation. Which is a studio that's very open to the idea of trying different styles & different genres," Minkoff concluded. "Just wait 'til you guys see what they're doing with 'How to Train Your Dragon 2.' That really doesn't feel like your typical animated sequel. It's very sophisticated, it's very dark and it's very adult."

Copyright DreamWorks Animation LLC. All rights reserved

Mind you, "Dragon 2" doesn't open in theaters 'til June 13th. Whereas "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" opens domestically this Friday. So if you'd like to see what sorts of cinematic surprises Rob & his team have crammed into this trojan horse of a movie, why not hop in the WABAC and head out to see this 20th Century Fox release of a DreamWorks Animation production?

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  • I think it's about time that animators start animating Patrick Warburton against type. So far, every character he plays is a huge, hulking, somewhat dim person. I like his voice, but all the characters he plays all seem to blend into each other. I think he could have more range than that.

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