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Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art - Great Expectations?

Can one predict an animated film’s success in advance? Dr. Toon makes a case for the upcoming DreamWorks feature, Mr. Peabody and Sherman.

Another CG film starring classic characters, another controversy, but what else might you expect? Since the announcement that DreamWorks was resurrecting the classic Jay Ward characters Mr. Peabody and Sherman for a feature-length CG film, animation fans have taken up positions on both sides of the fence. Some eagerly await the flick, while others have been far less sanguine. It’s nothing new for fans and audiences to evaluate a movie while it’s partway through production, but should this really be done? If so, how? At this stage of production, given the information released or leaked to the public, the only criteria the critic has is simply this:

Is this film a good or a bad idea? Why or why not? Of course, the film may be a great idea but prove to be executed so poorly that it dies on opening week. A film may also be a great idea but end up with pedestrian presentation due to the lack of acumen by those who made it. Such films are largely forgettable after one viewing. A film that is a bad idea in the first place simply does not stand a chance; it’s rotten before it even dies on the vine. Since we’re dealing with an animated film, the rules are a bit different that those that involve live-action films.  So, how can we determine whether an animated film is a good idea, and how can we venture to predict its success or lack of same?

The Concept:

™ & © 2005 Ward Productions Inc. Licensed by

™ & © 2005 Ward Productions Inc. Licensed by
Bullwinkle Studios, Llc. All rights reserved.

Peabody’s Improbable History was a component of Jay Ward’s animated TV program Rocky and His Friends, which premiered in the fall of 1959. The segment featured Mr. Peabody, a brilliant white dog and his “pet boy” Sherman. The pair owned a time machine known as the WABAC. Mr. Peabody and his red-headed companion would travel to distant eras to get the skinny on how history really went down. Since Ward was a keen satirist, these episodes were often quite witty and ended with an atrocious pun by Mr. Peabody.

It’s a good concept for an animated film. Talking animals, time travel, and silly humor aren’t a bad mix. The script at present has the WABAC stolen by Mr. Peabody’s rival and nemesis Paul Peterson and his wife Paula, who are using it to change historic events. It’s up to Mr. Peabody and Sherman to right things. (There was apparently an earlier treatment in which Sherman uses the WABAC without permission and thus upsets the space-time continuum).

Some fans have noted that Mr. Peabody never had a nemesis in the series and does not need one now, but keep in mind that this is a feature-length movie, Not a six-minute episode.  An antagonist is needed to keep the plot moving. There is simply no way to string together a time-travelogue featuring various historical figures and still keep it interesting.

There are some complaints, especially in the wake of the failed Rocky and Bullwinkle movie (2000) that these characters have been out of circulation too long and will not be familiar enough to modern audiences, making the film a poor concept from the start. That might have a taste of truth to it, but on the whole, that’s rubbish. Not only has the series been running on various cable and satellite networks for years, nearly the entire manifest is available on DVD. Ever visit YouTube? Those who are not familiar with Mr. Peabody and Sherman simply do not wish to be, or are not the type of movie fans who would see animated films in the first place. That’s a consumer choice, not an excuse to proclaim the film doomed from the start. Therefore, the concept appears, at this time, to pass muster.

Personnel:

One of the most heartbreaking facts in Hollywood is that studio suits are more than willing to greenlight animated and animation-related projects to self-styled auteurs who have never animated or directed so much as a flip book. It’s almost a rule of thumb that animated properties cast in live-action have been headed up by people who believe that watching cartoons qualify them to throw other people’s money down the toilet with ego-swollen impunity. This has been true of both television and cinematic projects, but the budgets associated with feature films make the failures especially painful.

So, who’s working on Mr. Peabody and Sherman?

Rob Minkoff is serving as director, one of the five producers, and co-writer of the screenplay. Mr. Minkoff once directed a billion-dollar box office animated film that had something to do with lions. He directed several Roger Rabbit shorts and also served as an animator, primarily at Disney, from 1985-1999. He may possibly possess some knowledge concerning animated films. The technical animation director is Scott Douglas, who served the same role on How to Train Your Dragon, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and Megamind. It may be worth mentioning that Tiffany Ward is the Executive Producer. She is Jay Ward’s daughter. Any familiarity she may have with the characters is far from coincidental. This is the core of a very solid crew that understands how to produce and direct an animated film. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt at the least.

Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation.

Translation

By this I refer to the act of translating characters from a previous era of production into characters congruent with current technologies. This, for some reason, seems to be the most controversial point among the fans, when it should actually be the least. Unless one wishes to date a 2013 animated film horribly, one must accept that it won’t look like one made in 1960. The single CG image that has been released to date by DreamWorks depicts a confident-looking Mr. Peabody with sharp blue eyes. Beside him is a bright-eyed, bucktoothed Sherman with an upswept mane of hair. While Mr. Peabody is largely recognizable compared with Ted Key’s original design, Sherman has undergone considerable updating.

As much as it seems to upset the purists and those who dislike CGI’s “wide-eyed” look, he should have been upgraded. To begin with, feature film audiences in 2013 will not be happy with animation that mirrors the style used in 1959. This topic was discussed in last month’s column on The Avengers. Audience expectations for a CG film have become a bar that is constantly raised. Mr. Peabody and Sherman cannot have pinpoint dots for eyes, nor will Sherman’s original haircut (which resembles a jellyfish slapped atop his skull) suffice. It should be remembered that the original Rocky show was famous for its adult satirical humor and infamous for the subpar quality of its animation. The series was actually subcontracted to ValMar (later known as Gamma) studio in Mexico. Due to poor communication, lack of overall skill, and the crush of TV production deadlines, the animation was quite possibly the poorest product on TV short of Sam Singer’s abysmal efforts. Mr. Peabody and Sherman never actually looked very good. In this case, modernization is a welcome improvement. Without the new designs, it would be hard to see the point of making the film in CG or 3D.

Bill Scott, the original voice of Mr. Peabody, and Walter Tetley, the artist who voiced Sherman, are no longer with us, but that’s no one’s fault. Their places had to be taken by Ty Burrell and Max Charles. It remains to be seen how the translated animation and vocals will play with audiences, but the new version will probably be more acceptable than the purists realize (or would like to).

Marketing and Promotion

Once upon a time, back in 1997, Warner Bros. distributed a cute little winner of an animated film called Cats Don’t Dance. It was released with virtually no promotion, little advance notice, no tie-ins, and the smallest amount of fanfare possible. Two years later they did it again to a film called The Iron Giant. Both films were arguably among the best in their class in those respective years, and they succeeded with the animation fanbase in spite of their puny promotional efforts. DreamWorks is not likely to roll the dice in such a manner. I expect this film to be heavily promoted, with significant tie-ins and merchandising accompanying the release. For one thing, DreamWorks is rarely cheap in such efforts, and besides, that studio tends to produce their animated films with an eye for possible sequels.  It’s a good bet that Mr. Peabody and Sherman will be heavily hyped prior to release, and the recognition factor will be high by that time. At least one might expect so. Lord knows it didn’t work for Green Lantern.

On the basis of analyzing personnel, translation, and marketing/promotion, Mr. Peabody and Sherman has more potential to succeed than flop. It stands to draw both a child, tween, and adult audience, and animated films in general have a very good track record over the past two or three years. However, this is as much as can be said. The film may exceed expectations, do modestly well, open well and tail off, or bomb completely. No amount of analysis, however cogent, is capable of looking into the future.

In any case, the act of analysis is important in itself; it gives the animation critic a set of expectations based on fact and produces a profile of the film that serves as a base for critical evaluation after the film has premiered.

Right or wrong, you as an animation critic have nothing to lose through predictive analysis. If you are correct, it is a tribute to your foresight and background research. If you’re not, well, at least you learned how to construct a peephole into the future and fill it with your critical viewpoint.

And, as you know, Sherman, you can fill some of the peepholes all of the time, and all of the peepholes some of the time, but you can’t fill all of the peepholes all of the time.

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Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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