Hollywood, as usual, had it backward. Peabody was always top dog - precursor to "Bill and Ted's Excellent adventure" and to Brian the egghead dog on "Family Guy."
So believed Rob Minkoff, director of the animated smash "The Lion King," who devoured Peabody cartoons as a goggle-eyed kid (he looks a lot like a grown Sherman) and has labored for 12 years to get Mr. Peabody on screen.
"All we've been focused on is doing justice to the original. And a lot of that is asking ourselves, 'who is Mr. Peabody, and what makes him so funny,' and trying to get it right over the long haul," Minkoff said while in town the other day the chat about the movie.
Peabody's essence is in his intellect, a tradition that Minkoff's movie honors courageously. How many contemporary animated movies would build a joke about the meaning of the word "apocryphal?"
That's what Minkoff does, in a scene that riffs on the folk history of George Washington and the cherry tree.
"That's the meta aspect of the show, that made it so unique. What's reality? What's legend? What's truth and what's history? Because history is, as we all know, a story that's told by the victors. We all sort of accept (history), but at the same time, we know it's a little bit questionable whether we're getting the actual facts or not. There's always that element of conjecture. That's what made the idea so interesting to Jay Ward, and to us."
Minkoff worked hard to preserve Peabody's stature as a genius/inventor/sophisticate, and he does. But some things had to be altered. In the movie, the relationship is fully father and son. In the Ward carton, Sherman is strictly a rescue boy.
"We tried to recreate some of those jokes, and they didn't quite land. Peabody telling Sherman to sit, or stay. Suddenly, as the characters became more real to audiences, the jokes didn't have the right dynamic."
It also meant the movie was working - the plot has Peabody scrambling to help Sherman patch things up with a classmate to head off an adoption challenge from child services. It involves, naturally, the famous WABAC machine, and in this case trips to Renaissance Italy and ancient Egypt.
The relationships are so real, Minkoff said, some younger test audience members wondered if the "history" was real as well.
"We had one kid from an elementary school ask if all this really happened," Minkoff said. "But that's the point of the show. Peabody would go back in history, where famous people were having trouble doing what they became famous for doing, and Peabody would put it back on track, and so is ultimately responsible for history."
I asked Minkoff where he thought Ward (and creator Ted Key) might have conjured up Peabody, who became a hit in the swinging '60s.
Minkoff said he always saw Peabody as a kind of adult anti-square, a figure like Mary Poppins or Willy Wonka, who subverts the idea of an adult character as "straight conservative or limiting or dull or rigidly parental."
"Making a point that being an adult is not necessarily the end. That was the zeitgeist of the times. A youth generation that didn't necessarily trust adults."
That's another story.