Here's a perfect test case to see if you can sell a property that was made to exploit nostalgia when there's no genuine nostalgia for the property among the target audience. The only way this film adaptation of "Mr Peabody & Sherman" is a big hit is if kids go see it, and as far as kids today are concerned, "Mr Peabody & Sherman" is brand-new.
Dreamworks seems to know that this is going to take some special handling. Since they moved to 20th Century Fox, there have been at least three different press events for this particular film, and they've really been trying to sell us on how beloved the Jay Ward characters are. That's partially true. I grew up watching "Rocky & Bullwinkle" in all its various incarnations and repackagings, and I have every DVD of material they've released. There is a droll anarchy to those shows that I love, and I've certainly put them on a few times to try to share them with my kids.
Unlike many of the things that I've shared with them, though, they couldn't care any less about Bullwinkle, Rocky, and the rest of the Jay Ward characters. It's way more verbal than the comedy they typically respond to, and I think it's a totally different type of humor than they are used to. Thinking back on it, I believe I watched the show as a kid the way I watched anything… curiosity first. It wasn't until high school that I think I truly fell in love with the wit of the shows.
My kids are more steeped in older media than many kids today are, and if they don't care about Mr. Peabody and Sherman as characters, I can't imagine there's a huge rabid youth audience out there waiting for this movie. That doesn't mean it will bomb, of course. It just means that they can't count on the easy nostalgia sell. They've got to convey what this is and treat it like it's a brand-new movie featuring brand-new characters.
This first trailer is a step in that direction. They don't really hammer the idea that this is based on anything, and if you're not familiar with them, it doesn't feel like a lot of inside jokes. They set up the basic premise that Mr. Peabody is the inventor of the Way Back Machine, and that Sherman goes on an adventure in time that they then have to fix.
I would like to once again state for the record that Patrick Warburton is a goddamn treasure. Just his delivery in the Troy sequence has me laughing already. I love that guy, and there's no one else who makes the same weird-ass comic choices he does. The Da Vinci joke at the end is pretty funny, too. Overall, it looks like the comedy in the film should work really well. And Ty Burrell, who voices Mr. Peabody, is also in "Muppets Most Wanted" next year, so basically he should be my kids' new favorite actor by the end of 2014.
The one joke my kids do really like about these two is that Sherman is Mr. Peabody's pet boy, and we'll see how they handle it in the film. I'm sure there will be an emphasis on the two of them as a family, but I hope they don't try to turn this into something treacly or sentimental. The original property is just plain funny, and that's really what I hope they get right.
"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" opens March 7, 2014.