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Ty Burrell is the head of a different kind of family in 'Mr. Peabody & Sherman'

Ty Burrell and the Mr. Peabody character
Ty Burrell and the Mr. Peabody character
DreamWorks Animation

In the 3-D animated film "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell), the most accomplished dog in the world, and his mischievous, adopted human son Sherman voiced by Max Charles), use their time machine, The WABAC, to go on the most outrageous adventures known to man or dog. But when Sherman takes The WABAC out for a joyride to impress his friend Penny, they accidentally rip a hole in the universe, wreaking havoc on the most important events in world history.

Rob Minkoff, Max Charles and Ty Burrell at the New York City press conference for "Mr. Peabody & Sherman"
Rob Minkoff, Max Charles and Ty Burrell at the New York City press conference for "Mr. Peabody & Sherman"
Carla Hay

Before they forever alter the past, present and future, Mr. Peabody must come to their rescue, ultimately facing the most daunting challenge of any era: figuring out how to be a parent. Together, the time traveling trio will make their mark on history. Here is what Burrell, Charles and "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" director Rob Minkoff said when they sat down together for a "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" press conference in New York City.

What kinds of decisions did you have to make to adapt “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” from TV to a movie?

Minkoff: This all started 12 years ago. This is crazy, but I realized that this all started before Max [Charles] was born. So it was 12 years ago, and my producing partner whom I did “Stuart Little” with (this was after “Stuart Little”), he asked me a question: “What do you think of ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’?” And I said, “I love ‘Mr. Peabody & Sherman’!”

And he said, “What about making a movie?” And I said, “It’s a fantastic idea. Why don’t we do that?” And we met Tiffany Ward. Tiffany is Jay Ward’s daughter. Jay Ward was the producer/creator of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” “George of the Jungle.”

And I was a big fan growing up. I loved them when I was a kid. I think I may have caught up with it in reruns, not necessarily the original version of the show, but I loved them, I loved those characters. So when the idea came up, I jumped at the chance.

I met with Tiffany, and then we began this kind of epic journey, which eventually brought us to DreamWorks in 2005. We worked for a long time on the story to figure out what was going to be the version of the movie that we were going to do. And then in 2011, I got a call from DreamWorks saying that they were ready to greenlight the movie, and we started. And then Ty came soon after that, and then Max.

Ty, what happened after you came along to the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” movie?

Burrell: I had sort of peripheral of the original series when I was a kid. I was not quite enough when it originally aired, but my brother is about seven years older than me. I remember him watching reruns. I have very warm memories because he was always laughing. I have no idea why. It was a little bit over my head.

So when it came along, I was really excited to audition for it. I auditioned a couple of times. Very luckily, I got the part. And then it became a process of trying to figure out — and it was a group process — the voice that paid respect to Bill Scott, who was the genius actor who did the original vocal part [of Mr. Peabody] and other parts that you would recognize from the time period.

But also, we’re doing a feature-length film, and we’re really getting into the father/song relationship here. I don’t now if any of you have seen the original [“Mr. Peabody & Sherman cartoons], but they’re five-minute shorts. And they’re very witty, but they don’t really have time to get into Peabody and Sherman’s relationship. So it was the first part of the process to figure out how much of this could be an homage to Bill Scott and also how much of this needs to be more grounded so that we could have real conversations.

Then it became this whole process which I had never been a part of, which is a two-year thing. It’s an incredible malleable process, where story is being perfected and animation is being perfected. In the best way possible … it’s hard to describe, but the stars of this really are the director and the animators. The voices are important but they’re really roles to a super-magical thing, which I never really had been a part of, right up until the thrilling reveal of seeing the movie itself, which I saw a few weeks ago.

But as far as process, it’s by far the most thrilling thing I’ve ever done, because I had no idea what it was I was going to see. It’s impossible to see all the imagery when you’re really making it. One of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had was seeing the movie. And obviously, it helps that I really, really genuinely love the movie. It’s just amazing what Rob and the producers and all the animators have done.

How is the tone of the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” movie different from “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” on TV?

Minkoff: Every episode was about Mr. Peabody taking Sherman to a different historical period through the WABAC. And they would meet a crazy historical character that we would know, but they always be having trouble — like [Leonardo] da Vinci is having trouble with the Mona Lisa — the historical characters were always having trouble with whatever made them famous in the first place.

Peabody, who knew everything and know what they were supposed to have done, helps them and nudges their elbow and makes them do everything. So that was slightly different. In the TV show, you would have imagine by the end of it that Mr. Peabody is basically responsible for everything. Nothing would have gotten done without him. We didn’t want to be that slavish to it, but it has the same spirit.

Max, what was it like to get the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” role?

Charles: Yeah, I went through a round of auditions, and once I got the role, I was really excited. I looked up the old “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” and I watched a couple of episodes, and I really liked it.

Why do you think it was important to include bullying in the “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” screenplay?

Minkoff: One of the things that happened, especially in the story development process is that in 2011, when DreamWorks greenlit this movie, there was a script that we all liked, but still had a long way to go to be a movie that was going to be fulfilling. And the writers had to leave because they sold a TV show that they had to produce, so we had to find a new writer, and we met with a lot of different people.

And when Craig Wright came into the picture — he’s the writer who was given credit for the script to the film — he came in with this idea: “Why don’t we change Sherman’s nemesis from a boy into a girl?” And that was an idea that we hadn’t considered. And it was suddenly the lightbulb went off, like, “That’s a great idea.” We said, “Why?”

“Because,” he said, “If it’s a girl, it’s going to have this transformational effect on Sherman.” Because the story is that Mr. Peabody is raising a son up to the point where he has to take him to school.

He has to send him to school for the first time, and it’s the first time that Mr. Peabody hasn’t been in control of everything. It’s universal for parents who suddenly have to take their kids and send them off into the world, and we don’t know how the world is going to affect them. And we very often can’t control how the world is going to affect them.

And so, for Peabody, who’s an incredibly controlled and controlling guy, that idea seems really compelling: that Sherman would meet this girl and, as in every classic relationship, as Mr. Peabody points out in the movie: “All great relationships begin from a place of conflict and evolve into something richer.” So bullying wasn’t the thing we were portraying. We were portraying the conflict that characters go through as kind of a first step. And that conflict that characters feel toward each other, even if they become the greatest of friends, is so often how it begins. And so, we were just really trying to be truthful, I think, to those kinds of relationships that can profoundly impact you.

Can you talk about updating “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” to appeal to a modern audience and the message of redefining what a family is?

Minkoff: We always think of “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” as the original “Modern Family.” What can be more modern than a dog adopting a boy? As far as the update, there are two big things that come to mind.

Obviously, we set it in the world of today, so that Peabody and Sherman live in modern Manhattan. In fact, if you’re interested, Peabody’s apartment building is on the corner of Central Park South and Sixth Avenue.

The other thing was the technique of making the movie. We did the movie in obviously computer animation and looks extremely modern. It’s made in 3-D, whereas the original show was done in 2-D, using limited animation. So are the two big ways it became more modern. But we wanted it to also feel somewhat retro.

Max, what is the most fun about making movies?

Charles: Probably meeting all the people and going to all these places and meeting people and seeing how nice they are.

Who was the most exciting person you met, besides Ty Burrell?

Burrell: [He says to Charles] You met Spider-Man. His first job was “[The Amazing] Spider-Man” the movie.

One of the themes of the movie is a parent learning to let go of a child going to school for the first time. Ty, as a father, do you fear the moment when you have to let your kids go?

Burrell: Oh yeah. My oldest daughter has started to go to pre-school. And that is a terrifying. But dropping a kid off at school, I did not handle it well. She was totally fine. She didn’t care at all, but I was a little bit of a wreck. I think that’s the strongest theme of our film: the father/son aspect.

We talked about the modern family. Obviously, there won’t be any time soon when there are dogs adopting kids, but by the same token, there’s an important thing here about the external not being the most important aspect of a relationship. I’m an adoptive father, and the most important thing is the love, that you care, and that you’re trying your best.

Peabody is not a perfect parent. Nor am I. But there’s an amazing story in the movie about [Mr. Peabody & Sherman] going from mentor/protégé … to father/son, and they realize that they love each other. It’s a very powerful thing. As an adoptive parent, that’s an incredible thing to realize It’s my favorite thing about the movie. It also happens to be a big, fun, funny time-travel adventure.

Was it tough not to have Mr. Peabody be a mean character?

Minkoff: [He says jokingly] Ty can be very mean.

Burrell: Luckily, there are no recordings of me just yelling at people. I think, in a way, that feat was already accomplished for us by the original. Peabody and those characters are largely established. We’re working with characters where you know Peabody always had Sherman’s best intentions in mind. Sherman is an innocent. He’s sweet, naïve and innocent. A lot of that is credit to the Ward family.

Minkoff: The other thing is that moment in the film that I love, which is after Mr. Peabody puts Sherman to bed, Sherman says, “I love you.” And Mr. Peabody says, I have a deep regard for you as well.”

And people laugh because they understand Mr. Peabody. They understand, They know he loves him. They never doubt that Mr. Peabody loves him. It’s just that Mr. Peabody has a hard time seeing it. And that, I think, is the key to the character. I never think that Mr. Peabody is not entirely devoted to Sherman. They’re really a team from the beginning.

Burrell: I do think there is a cool transformation from he absolutely is devoted to Sherman, but I don’t think he realizes how much he loves Sherman until he has taken him under his wing as a mentor that wants to teach him well. The process of letting go brings up more in terms of how much he actually loves him.

You’re a crier, aren’t you?

Burrell: Oh, you know it!

Max, which of the historical characters was your favorite?

Charles: There’s a lot of great ones. All of the characters are really cool in the movie.

Did you learn anything from making “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” that you didn’t know before about people in history?

Charles: I did. I learned about different people and different places. You learn about it in a fun way also.

Minkoff: I think this is true for Max as it was for me when I was watching the [“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”] show. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know who they were. But I was going to meet them for the first time, which is great about it. I think if you ask any dozen kids who Marie Antoinette is, they’ll say, “I don’t know.” Maybe they’ll say, “Let them eat cake.” I don’t think so.

But, for me, when you watched the show as a kid, I never really thought about it as a history lesson. Teachers are the thing. Mr. Peabody is a great teacher, because he can bring it to life in a way that makes it seem exciting and new and an adventure.

Burrell: By actually bringing it to life.

Minkoff: Well, he brings it one step further than the average teacher. But that whole idea that kids can be exposed to this history. And what’s amazing to me is that I became, because of the show, really interested in history, because when you start to learn about history, it’s just filled with great stories and great characters. That’s what history is: stories that we tell. And if you tell a story well, it’s exciting and interesting.

And my hope is that kids are going to see it differently. They’re not going to think of it the same way. “Oh, wow. Who’s King Tut and what is he about?” And learn more about it in the future. We’re just giving them a little taste.

Burrell: Yeah. I think there is something to that. I feel the exact same way, even though we’re not adhering to every single fact in an animated film. This is not a very rigorous history lesson, but there’s something to just showing that history is our stories. And the [“Mr. Peabody & Sherman”] shorts did an amazing job of that. If it piques an interest in a kid, the can go back.

And when you’re reading that material, I have that hope too that the kid reading the material has an inherent sense that it’s a story. It’s not just facts or dry facts. There’s a way that the movie can kind of introduce that idea to kids. That’s really all it is: storytelling, little pockets of stories.

Ty, what was it like to play an intellectual dog?

Burrell: Well, I had a director who could teach me how to pronounce the very big words. Peabody, the only thing he’s not perfect at is being a parent. And you could argue that maybe he’s not perfect in his humor.

Sherman may not be incredible fault for getting all of his jokes. The bigger stretch for me is playing a genius, Nobody in my life is ever going to mistake me for a genius. But that’s also part of the fun of acting.

Sometimes you get to play people who are so far from you. And this [“Mr. Peabody & Sherman” movie is so much about imagination. If you put me in a very serious movie where I had to play a genius, I would have a hard time convincing myself that I can do it.

But in a place where it’s all about imagination and it’s really fun, I won’t say that it’s easy, but it’s very lighthearted. Phil Dunphy [my character in “Modern Family”] is much closer to who I am. A genius is not.

The biggest challenge of doing a movie like this is the technical aspect. Peabody is saying things like synchronic fondibulator … And at the end of these sessions, I would have complete “rubber mouth.” At the end of a few hours of that, it was very hard for me to even pronounce my own name. So believe it or not, that was actually probably the most challenging part.

What’s the most fun that you have on a project?

Miskoff: There’s always a couple of stages that are fun. When you’re in the very early, conceptual stage. And there’s a problem story-wise in figuring something out, like we need to convey something, but we’re not sure how.

Coming up with an idea that is exciting to you, like, “Oh my God, this is great idea,” and hopefully sticks into the movie is extremely rewarding. It’s fun. You have that flash of inspiration, and then you see that actually come to life on the screen.

There are scenes of Sherman being bullied. What effect did you want those bullying scenes to have?

Minkoff: I think bullying is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the fact that we have it in the film does address it. It’s important to understand why people bully, where it comes from. And it usually comes from people not understanding, certainly not accepting or not being open and not being tolerant. And what our movie is about is learning that tolerance and saying, “Just because you’re a dog doesn’t mean you can’t be a father.” I think if there’s an epidemic of children wanting to be adopted by their dogs, it’s possible [there the movie had some effect].

How do you find the balance between entertaining and educating viewers? And what are the elements that turn an animated film into a classic?

Minkoff: When I was growing up, I loved animation, and I loved a lot of different kinds of animation. Some of my favorites, not all, were obviously the Jay Ward cartoons. I never had the good fortune to meet Jay Ward, but I did have a chance to meet and become quite good friends with Chuck Jones, who’s one of the great directors for Warner Bros. He created the Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Pepe Le Pew and directed some of the greatest “Daffy Duck” cartoons. ‘

Anyway, I met him when I was an 18-year-old first-year Cal Arts student, and he became a mentor. And the first thing that he said, which stuck with me forever, was when they made those films then, they made them for themselves. They never really thought about kids or the parents or the adults. They wanted to amuse themselves. So when you do that, that’s the first step in making it work on both levels. It’s not entirely a conscious thing. You start there.

Ty and Max, what was it like to hear your voices come out of these “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” characters for the first time?

Burrell: It’s insane. It’s a little hallucinatory. For me, that was part of the magic of seeing the movie in general. Max is more experienced with voiceover animation than I am. It’s sort of cliché, but I genuinely found seeing the movie magical because of that sort of innate absurdity, but also because this whole world had been created in my absence. It’s humbling. It’s that, it’s the voice and everything surrounding it. It took a little while to get used to the idea that this whole universe had been build around everybody’s voices.

Charles: It’s fun to the see whole movie when it’s done, because you think about all the stuff that you’ve done in the movie. And you think about, from the start, all the recording sessions you’ve done. And it’s cool to see the movie finished and see the big movie and see all that you’ve done and think about how amazing it is to be in it.

The “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” production notes say that it was a coincident that Ariel Winter (who plays one of Ty Burrell’s daughters in “Modern Family”) was cast as the voice of Penny (Sherman’s nemesis-turned-friend) in “Mr. Peabody & Sherman.” Can you talk about casting the voices of the historical characters in “Mr. Peabody & Sherman”?

Minkoff: A lot of times, you just sit around with the story team, and you think, “What if?” And sometimes crazy ideas end up working. And the Mel Brooks [as the voice of Albert Einstein] one was that. We didn’t think he’d necessarily would, but when he said it, it became inseparable.

What’s the most human-like thing any of your pets have ever done?

Minkoff: I used to have a dog that read the newspaper, usually when he peed on it.

Burrell: I don’t know if this is human-like, but we had the sweetest dog named Liza. We lived in Ashland, Oregon — not a super-small town, but a pretty small town. And she loved the warmth of the street.

So she would actually go out and lay in the middle of the street, but our neighbors knew where she was, and our neighbors would drive all around her. And she never got hit. She spent her whole life taking naps in the middle of the street out on front of our house. And our neighbors just drove around Liza.

Charles: My dog looks into my eyes when I’m petting him, when he looks at me, he actually looks into my eyes. It’s weird.

Rob, you directed “The Lion King” movie. How has animation changed since then?

Minkoff: A couple of big things. First of all, when we made “The Lion King,” there were many, many fewer animated movies being made. Disney would make one every couple of years. Then suddenly, it was every year. And “Pocahontas” came along. “Pocahontas” and “The Lion King” were made at the same time.

Now, DreamWorks can make as many as three [animated] films a year, which is incredible. And that’s on top of the dozen or more movies being made. Animation production has just boomed in those 20 years.

And the other thing is that computers have taken over the bulk of the work, Making them in 3-D is entirely different from doing it in traditional hand animation. So those are the two big differences.

If you could go back in time, what movies would you want to do?

Burrell: I don’t know you reminded me of it, but “Midnight Run.” I almost feel like road trips are the best way to tell a story. It’s a physical manifestation of dramatic action. But, to me, that’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, although I might be ruining the movie. You want Charles Grodin in the movie.

Charles: I like “Doctor Who.” It’s not really a movie; it’s a TV show, but it’s pretty cool because it’s also time travel, and they have a time machine also, and it’s really cool.

Minkoff: It’s hard to pick one. I’ll give you three: “The Wizard of Oz,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “North by Northwest.”

Ty, where are you at with the “Finding Nemo” sequel?

Burrell: We’re at the very beginning. The script isn’t even finished.

For more info: "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" website