befitting a book about wacky time travel, The
Art of Dreamworks Mr. Peabody and Sherman features what amounts to two forewards and
an afterwords. Multi-Emmy-winning Modern
Family star Ty Burrell offers some thoughts on voicing the iconic
character. Tiffany Ward shares a very pleasant Jay Ward's daughter's eye-view
in the preface. Later, Lion King
co-director Rob Minkoff ties it all up up an afterword, expressing the joy of
working on a film with characters he loves.
There’s no denying that, from the banquet of production art, concept sketches, backgrounds and other details that festoon this tome, it is sumptuous indeed. The text follows the production step by step, from characters (new as well as existing), the environments (I marveled at the art for Peabody's house for what seems like an hour, it was so Jetson-y) and the various historic settings in which our heroes find themselves. Some of this art needs your attention for several minutes, as you savor every detail.
You can see the painstaking effort to somehow transform the delightfully random look of the WABAC machine - which wasn’t consistent from cartoon to cartoon all the time—and how the actual time travel experience within the machine has been blown out to a very elaborate degree, yet still with the silliness that suggests Jay Ward. Let’s face it, the visual payoff of the original WABAC (when there was one) paled when compared to Tooter the Turtle’s spin through the sparkling "Tristle-Trassle" vortex. Peabody usually just assured us that the machine worked flawlessly.
But I think that the most likely reason of all to enjoy this book is because of what it DOESN’T have.
Time after time, when a "re-imagining" of a beloved property is announced, those connected with the reboot proclaim an open or implied disgust with the original. They feel the need to assure the world that this will be a new "this or that" much more "in tune" with today’s tastes, so we should forget all about that stale old version we loved as kids. That’s like my mom throwing away my classic but smelly comic books, leaving room for only fresh-scented new ones. It’s also like Aladdin’s wife trading new lamps for old.
When the rebooters do that, they’re immediately putting the property’s best audience on the defensive. It’s not only bad business, it’s downright narcissistic: "What do you fans know anyway? Let us show you how this thing SHOULD be done!"
And that is what I did not find as I read every page of The Art of Mr. Peabody and Sherman. I know from my own experience that, if the marketing hook were to be "out with the old and in with the new," that message would be instilled within every communication associated with the film, including the "Art Of" book. Instead, the message is "we're striving to capture, as best as we can, what made the original great and expand on it in a way that fans will enjoy and new fans will embrace." That's a tall order when the original cartoon was about four minutes long per episode with pretty much every figure in world history voiced by Paul Frees.
The earnest attitude of respect expressed throughout the text and evidenced in the artwork - not so much in the superspectacular epic scenes that Ward and company couldn’t and probably wouldn’t have attempted - but in the various sketches and goofy, UPA-like details that pepper most of the pages. This project seems to have been as fun as it was daunting.
The last section of the book is especially fine for introducing kids to the animation process and makes this a good book for schools and libraries: Peabody and Sherman themselves explain, along with the artists, how a sequence is planned and carried out. I counted two fold out pages and did not count illustrations, but there are hundreds of them.
To be honest, I had my doubts about this movie. I liked Peabody’s Improbable History (my wife likes it better than I do), but my favorite part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle show was Fractured Fairy Tales. After seeing this book, I am really looking forward to seeing the film and finding out whether all these elements gelled into something fun and funny. Afterward, it will be even more fascinating the go through the book again to see how it all fit together.