It wasn’t necessarily supposed to take 20 years for Ron Minkoff to make his return to fully animated feature films following the success of his 1994 Disney blockbuster The Lion King (after adjusting for inflation, still the third-highest grossing ‘toon movie from the mouse house after Snow White and 101 Dalmatians). But such are the realities of getting an animated project off the ground that he actually managed to get five other features through the pipeline in the interim between Lion and the newly released Mr. Peabody & Sherman.
The movie updates the story for two second-string characters from Jay Ward’s estimable Rocky & Bullwinkle universe. Peabody, the world’s smartest dog, teaches his adopted human child Sherman a bunch of, well, fractured history lessons using his WABAC time machine. Only in the 2014 version, there’s a not-so-hidden message advocating on behalf of all non-traditional family structures, as a meddlesome social worker deigns to remove Sherman from Peabody’s custody.
I had the chance to sit down with Minkoff a week ago to ask him about what it was like to return to the realm of cartoons in a computer-assisted world that was only just in its early days when he made The Lion King. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
Eric Henderson: Welcome to Frostbite Falls!
Rob Minkoff: Exactly! Aptly-named. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that’s been colder, at all. This is like a personal record.
Henderson: I don’t know if you can come back from anywhere colder. It would probably be your final resting spot.
Henderson: So this is the first fully animated movie you’ve done in two decades.
Minkoff: Twenty years, yes. The Lion King was the last one.
Henderson: What made you want to return to the form?
Minkoff: It’s funny. I was working on Stuart Little when we first started talking about making this movie. So it hadn’t been quite as long. In fact, it was 12 years ago that we had the first conversation about it. Somehow in that intervening time it never occurred to me that I would be away from animation for so long. The reality of animation is that it’s a complicated thing to get a movie to a studio to make, because they typically have a long line of projects on the runway, so getting the movie into that queue is a little bit difficult as well.
Henderson: In developing Peabody, how did you want to provide your own unique spin on the characters? Were you a fan of the original?
Minkoff: Huge fan! I remember watching them on TV. They were actually on in their original run when I was alive. I watched them all through the ’60s and early ’70s. As long as they were on. And I guess my unique spin is really more of thinking of the character as more of a classic character, without trying to be slavishly copying the original. We sort of approached it as if Mr. Peabody was a classic of literature like Sherlock Holmes. We’ve seen how many actors play Holmes over the year, and each one has their own spin, but they’re all essentially the same character. So we said let’s be liberated because we’re not going to make it the same way, with the same traditional kind of animation. It’s going to be done with computer animation and CGI. The animation now is technologically light years ahead of where it was then. But it wasn’t the form of the show we were trying to capture, it was more the essence of the characters and situations and the puns, obviously.
Henderson: Did you feel like you were entering a time machine in a way, bringing these characters that were from a pencil and line-drawing era into this computer-assisted realm?
Minkoff: Very absolutely. Interesting you bring that up, because we produced a piece early on so that showed the original cartoons, and then the camera pulled back to show our CGI Sherman watching the original cartoons. And his response was, “Gee, they look familiar. Who are they?” And Mr. Peabody says, “Well, that’s us from 1959.” That time warp was definitely implied from that.