He's a genius dog who invented a time machine and adopted a young boy. The title characters of "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," a 3-D animated feature that opened Friday, are another example of the wacky mentality of Jay Ward, the animator whose 1959-64 TV program, "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," featured Peabody and Sherman time-traveling in their Wabac (pronounced "way back") machine. The program has been in reruns ever since and has made icons out of a slew of memorable characters: Rocket J. Squirrel, a flying rodent, and Bullwinkle, his moose buddy; slippery spies Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale; plus Canadian Mountie Dudley Do-Right and mustache-twirling villain Snidely Whiplash.
"That show worked on multiple levels," says Rob Minkoff, director of the current film. "There is material for kids and also sophisticated jokes for adults. The show's format was also unusual; it was kind of a variety show, it was a novel approach to that kind of programming."
Ward, who died in 1989, was something of a mad genius, a lover of puns and corny jokes who in 1950 created "Crusader Rabbit," television's first animated series. Because of the limited budgets in those days, his shows were produced in what's called "limited animation" (think "The Simpsons"), and relied mainly on "the writing and the wordplay," says Minkoff, who also codirected "The Lion King."
Which makes them as clever today as they were 50 years ago. Still, three relatively unsuccessful feature films based on the show have been released -- "Boris and Natasha," starring Sally Kellerman and Dave Thomas, in 1992; "Dudley Do-Right" with Brendan Fraser as the inept Mountie; and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," with Robert De Niro and Rene Russo, in 2000. Which begs the question: Why attempt another shot at resurrecting Ward's characters?
"Kids today get the premise, it's funny, it's relevant," says Minkoff. "Here are these two classic characters, they could be Holmes and Watson. And it's this loopy view of history. We definitely take liberties with characters from history, the same way the show did. There's a fine line in the film only adults will get. And there is plenty for kids."