Dr. Toon: The Animation Critic’s Art - Great Expectations?
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.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.