Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Set the WABAC Machine to...somewhere else.

According to Entertainment Weekly...and I still can't believe I followed this link to their site... Morton Downey Jr. is going to do the voice of Mr. Peabody, in a new CGI cartoon based on the old Jay Ward cartoon segment, Peabody's Improbable History.

Okay, lots of issues here. First of all, the voice in the original cartoons was an impression of Clifton Webb, the character actor of the 1940's. He was most famous for playing the gay murderer in the film noir classic Laura. He was more popular for playing Mr. Belvedere, the gay butler to a middle-class American family. (Remember when Americans used to be middle class?) Not a voice that you'd attach to either Tony Stark or Sherlock Holmes.

The effeminate and glasses-wearing white dog, Mr. Peabody, took his "boy" Sherman back into time. Yes, he had a "boy." That suggestion of pedophilia, slavery and the rest will undoubtedly be a big part of this "modern" version of the story. But let's move on.

Peabody's Improbable History was typical wiseguy jokes by Jay Ward, the creator of Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale and many other old beloved cartoons. People who loved those cartoons have tried to revive them many times, always will ill effect. Remember the awful live-action Boris and Natasha? Here's a link to the IMDB page for that movie. And worse, there was The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (and here is that IMDB link), which attempted to do a CGI moose and squirrel with live action villains.

Jay Ward is dead. And like it or not, his world is dead with him. He was a pioneer of wiseguy dialog in cartoons, and innocent heroes against stupid villains, and his cartoons will probably be remembered a long time (I won't say forever). But a lot of people have done wiseguy animation, from Trey Parker and Matt Stone to Seth McFarlane. And nobody has ever been able to duplicate Ward's unique combination of cynicism and optimism.

There was only one honest attempt to revive Jay Ward, and it worked...but nobody paid attention to Cartoon Network's George of the Jungle series. It was cute and charming, and George was more an emotional naif than a moron fighting Jay Ward villains.

Ward saw his heroes as innocent, but they weren't fools; fate always made sure they won in the end. Rocky, George of the Jungle, Hoppity Hooper, all of them succeeded because they were the good guys. That was his faith, the faith of the American generation that won World War II, and few people have that kind of faith any more.

In Peabody's Improbable History, that optimism was applied to history. Peabody would tell Sherman to "set the WABAC Machine to..." and they'd go to visit some famous historical figure...who was always an incompetent and a moron. Peabody would help the famous old guy fulfill his destiny, from helping the Wright Brothers make their first flight to helping Lucretia Borgia's husband survive all her poisoning attempts.

Again, you see the Jay Ward faith aspect? There is a right way for history to be, Americans know what it is, and they can set it right. Even if the Americans happen to be a gay dog and his sidekick boy. This aspect won't fly, not in a culture where time travel has been examined by everyone from Doctor Who to Bill and Ted. We aren't that innocent any more.

It's easy to see why this is being made, and it's all in a single paragraph from the EW article:

A script has been penned by Jeffrey Ventimilia and Joshua Sternin, who wrote for the The Simpsons, That ’70s Show, and adapted the recent feature version of Yogi Bear. Minkoff won’t divulge which historical figures Peabody and Sherman will meet, but said the movie will focus not only on their time traveling, but also their origin story.

It's another attempt to mine animation history for something quick and cheap, and which might have some slight smell of success. That smell won't be Yogi Bear, which has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 15 percent. And it's another attempt for some current-day creators to redefine classic characters by adding an "origin story."

Believe it or not, the first episode of Peabody's Improbable History was an origin story. Jay Ward didn't need an extensive backstory. Peabody was a genius dog who could speak, and apparently delude people into thinking he was a human being. He came across a "stray boy" named Sherman and adopted him. With that out of the way Ward started slinging the historical gags, and puns, puns, puns.

But by "re-imagining" Peabody and Sherman, Ventamilia ans Sternin are making these classic characters their characters. It's so much easier to appropriate someone else's success - old and outdated as it may be - than to risk creating something original. And it's easy to get your remake financed if you can convince someone like Downey to voice the main character.

What's amazing and laughable is that executives at DreamWorks, who should know better, have fallen for this. The true measure of their stupidity will be if they continue with this project, even after the team's Yogi Bear took a poop in the woods.