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