Entertainment & Arts

Mr Peabody & Sherman 'respectful' to original series

Mr Peabody and Sherman Image copyright Press pic
Image caption Ty Burrell voices Mr Peabody (right) while Sherman is voiced by Max Charles

Travel back in time 55 years to 1959 and the first series of the American animated show Rocky and his Friends, later to be called The Rocky & Bullwinkle show, and it included a short segment called Peabody's Improbable History, starring a super-intelligent dog and his pet boy Sherman travelling through time.

Fast forward again to 2014 and the characters have been revived for the big screen by DreamWorks in Mr Peabody and Sherman. This time, in the hands of The Lion King director Rob Minkoff.

Modern Family star Ty Burrell provides the voice of Peabody - a talking dog, business titan, inventor, scientist, Nobel laureate, gourmand, and two-time Olympic medallist.

The cast also included the voices of Burrell's on-screen Modern Family daughter Ariel Winter, Stanley Tucci and comedy stars Stephen Colbert, Leslie Mann and Mel Brooks.

"It was important to us from the beginning to be as authentic as possible to capture the spirit of the original but for a new audience," says director Minkoff.

It was originally created by US television-animation legend Jay Ward, who also came up with characters like George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right.

Each short segment saw Peabody and Sherman use his WABAC (or Wayback) machine to travel through time to visit historical figures such as Napoleon, Lord Nelson and Leonardo Da Vinci.

"I think Rob and DreamWorks have done a very good job in being very respectful to the original series," says Burrell. "We've been working with Jay Ward's estate and his daughter Tiffany and they gave us the thumbs up after seeing it which was a big relief."

Burrell, 46, is best known to TV audiences as the well meaning but clumsy "cool, dad" Phil Dunphy in the hit US series Modern Family - a role for which he has won one Emmy and been nominated for three more.

"I had done some TV voice work and I've done some commercial voice work but this is my first feature film and I tried to enter into it with my ears and eyes opening in terms of learning," he explains.

Image copyright Press pic
Image caption The film sees Peabody and Sherman travel to ancient Egypt, and Italy and Troy

"I wanted to be respectful of Bill Scott who was the original voice and pay homage to him but also it's important that I create my own voice.

"The first voice was essentially me imitating Bill which is completely unsustainable because he is in such a higher register than me, I have a very deep voice, so that was ill-advised and then slowly it worked back down, still erudite but maybe less glib."

Burrell was not the first choice for Peabody, he took over from Robert Downey Jr - who was announced back in 2011. But Minkoff has nothing but praise for his new leading man.

"It was the balance of his intellect and rationality but we also wanted to show his heart and warmth, even though it's central to his character that he has trouble expressing his emotions," he says.

At the core of the story is the relationship between a father and his adopted son, albeit in this case a role reversal of the relationship between a boy and his dog.

A key scene shows Sherman, upon being told that, as the son of a dog he must himself be a canine, reacting by biting one of his school classmates.

Burrell says the story has resonance personally as the father to two adopted daughters.

"I have two young girls, I have an adoptive relationship which was another meaningful part of taking this job," he says.

"Their love for each other as father and son becomes the most important thing to both of them. Peabody wants to be a good dad and Sherman ultimately loves his dad and wants to be a good son."

3D technology

For his part, Mr Peabody and Sherman is Minkoff's first full-length animated feature since 1994's The Lion King - still the second biggest grossing animated movie of all time, with takings of more than $422m.

The huge box office success of recent animations like Despicable Me 2 and Frozen, agrees Minkoff, is why we are in a "golden age" of animation.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Burrell won best male actor in a comedy series at the Screen Actors Guild awards earlier this month

"I think because the technology has raced ahead and made so many things possible," he explains. "But for audiences, animation is going through this era of being accepted. People are enjoying animated films in numbers that are unprecedented.

"As long as the audiences are there, more will be made," he adds.

In 2011, The Lion King was retro-fitted in 3D and re-released in cinemas. Mr Peabody and Sherman will be available to audiences in both 2D and 3D.

With recent evidence suggesting that 3D audiences in Britain are dropping off, Minkoff insists that animation in particular is almost always improved by the new technology.

"I really enjoy 3D, which is to say that it is a wonderful medium and certain films are fantastic to watch in 3D.

"I don't necessarily think all films should be watched in 3D but I do think that it can be a fun more experiential kind of thing.

"I think the animation works well because it's fantasy, it's abstract. We look at it and we know it's not the real world but we want to be a part of it and 3D puts you in that world."

The film, which opens in the UK on 7 February, marks the beginning of a busy year for Burrell.

Modern Family

Soon to be seen opposite the Muppets in their new film Muppets Most Wanted, and in Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, Burrell also returns to the Modern Family fold, now in its fifth season.

Since it began in 2009, the show has made household names of Burrell and his co-stars. But despite their boosted profiles and star salaries, he insists that no-one is looking to jump ship to chase that big Hollywood payday.

"Every year, you come back and everybody is still hungry, I think that's the main thing and it's such a pleasant surprise. Not a surprise but a great feeling to come back to work and still have people so excited to be there."

Prior to Modern Family, Burrell was himself a jobbing actor, whose biggest roles were opposite Nicole Kidman in Fur and Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of zombie classic Dawn of the Dead.

He says most of the cast, barring Ed O'Neill who starred in the US TV classic Married... With Children, were in the same boat.

"Everybody was working but we hadn't experienced anything like Modern Family so we don't have anybody on the show who is chomping at the bit to get on to something else, because we'd all been around for a long time and we know what it's like out there.

"If you're the cast of Friends and you have a level of success then there must be a part of you that would be like, 'Is this holding me back?' But there's none of that on this show, everybody is just lucky enough to do projects in our off-season, films and stuff but we would do this show for 20 years if they let us."

Mr Peabody & Sherman opens in cinemas in the UK on 7 February.

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