Fred Patten takes a look at Jerry Beck’s gorgeous new coffee-table art book.
You know the routine by now. The coffee-table art books of current CGI animated theatrical features no longer give more than lip-service to the technique of the making of the film. This is purely a gorgeous art book for the fans of the movie; and in this case, the characters that are its stars.
Mr. Peabody, the smartest dog in the world (a beagle), and Sherman, his red-headed human pet, were introduced in the “Peabody’s Improbable History” segments of Jay Ward’s 1959-1964 TV cartoon show; originally as 91 four-minute episodes in Rocky and His Friends from November 29, 1959 to January 22, 1961 (the “Peabody’s Improbable History” alone, not the entire 30-minute Rocky and His Friends), and the renamed The Bullwinkle Show from September 5, 1961 to November 12, 1963. Reruns on network TV channels and cable TV, and syndicated TV broadcasting starting in 1973, has kept the time-traveling dog and his boy in the public eye through today.
For this 2014 movie, the original TV four-minute segments have been replaced by a single 92-minute adventure that is nevertheless episodic, and has several famous historical characters in supporting roles. The original character designs (kept as simple as possible for TV cartoons produced in Mexico) have been upgraded into DreamWorks’ still-cartoony but elaborately detailed computer graphic imagery.
The Art of Mr. Peabody and Sherman is written by animation expert and historian Jerry Beck; with a foreword by Ty Burrell, the voice of Mr. Peabody; a preface by Tiffany Ward, creator Jay Ward’s daughter and the feature’s executive producer; and an afterword by Rob Minkoff, the movie’s director. Although the art book concentrates on the 2014 feature, there are a few illustrations from the original TV series for comparison, to show both how faithful the DreamWorks artists have been to the 1959 designs, and how the new 21st-century look improves on the original.
As usual, each piece of art in the book – the concept art, the character designs, the background paintings, the set decorations, the VFX composites, and more – is identified by its artist: Pascal Campion, Kory Heinzen, David James, Craig Kellman, Chin Ko, Tim Lamb, Bryan Lashelle, Carlos Felipe León, Stevie Lewis, Joe Moshier, Ken Pak, Ruben Perez, Shane Prigmore, Priscilla Wong. Nate Wragg, and others. The text is full of quotes by the artists, and such DreamWorks executives as Bill Damaschke, DreamWorks Animation CCO, and Jason Schleifer, head of Character Animation. “Each time period needed a distinct look, since the film is visually episodic. Each historical period will tend to skew to a certain type of design caricature.” – David James, production designer (p. 88). Director Rob Minkoff says: “We needed characters who would be recognizable to a broad swath of people.” (p. 87). Possibly this is why such historical figures as Abraham Lincoln and the Mona Lisa, who are well-known to most Americans, are shown as recognizable caricatures; while others who are not recognizable by most Americans, such as the French Revolutionary leader Robespierre (who is in the movie but not in this art book), look nothing like the real figures. Of course, nobody knows what such ancient historical figures as King Tut and King Agamemnon really looked like, which gave the artists free rein.
Art books such as these often give a rough plot of the movie through their visual presentations. There is less of one in The Art of Mr. Peabody and Sherman. Mr. Peabody, the genius talking dog, Nobel prize-winning inventor, and head of worldwide Peabody Industries, decides to adopt a human boy. (There is a change here from the 1959 original. In the TV series, Mr. Peabody first meets Sherman as a seven-year-old orphan. In this movie, he adopts Sherman as an infant and raises him.) He invents the WABAC Machine to show Sherman the reality of famous historical events. When Sherman is seven years old, he has to go to school. His knowledge of detailed history raises the jealousy of another student, Penny Peterson. When she taunts Sherman for having a dog for a father, he bites her. Ms. Grunion, an officious bureaucrat from the Bureau of Child Safety and Protection, claims that this proves that a dog cannot be a father of a human, and threatens to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody.
The ensuing adventure has Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny traveling in the WABAC Machine to Ancient Egypt, the French Revolution, Florence at the time of Leonardo da Vinci, and Ancient Troy. At the climax, their meddling in history tears a hole in the Space-Time Continuum, and famous people from throughout history are dumped together in modern New York. DreamWorks’ writers had to come up with a single coherent story that let the main characters visit several dramatically different periods in history (“By their nature, time-travel stories can become rather convoluted, so developing a final script posed its own challenges.” --p. 89), but did not overshadow the main plot of foiling Ms. Grunion and reinforcing the bond between the dog and his boy. The writers did an admirable job.
Several other attempts in the last fifteen years to turn the TV cartoons of Jay Ward into live-action or combined live-CGI theatrical features have been critical and commercial failures. Mr. Peabody and Sherman, released on March 7, 2014, is more successful by keeping everything in CGI animation with an exotic plot that combines the spectacle of several colorful periods of history. See it for yourself, and if you like it, don’t miss this book for a detailed visual record of it.-
Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945). He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (link sends e-mail).