When industry types use the term "Hollywood North," it generally refers to Toronto and Vancouver, but how about right here? Northern California has long been home to Lucasfilm, the Coppolas' American Zoetrope, and PDI/Dreamworks, its local headquarters nestled by the Bay in Redwood City. The Midpeninsula animation studio has another claim to local fame with its latest film, "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," directed by none other than Palo Alto High School grad Rob Minkoff.
Minkoff remains best-known for co-directing "The Lion King" (with Roger Allers), but his increasingly varied resumé also includes two "Stuart Little" films, Disney's "The Haunted Mansion," and martial arts epic "The Forbidden Kingdom" with Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
He's spent much of the last decade shepherding classic TV characters Mr. Peabody and Sherman to the big screen, in a CGI expansion of the "Peabody's Improbable History" cartoon shorts that debuted in 1959 as a part of Jay Ward's "Rocky and His Friends" (and later continued on "The Bullwinkle Show").
Though you can take Minkoff out of Palo Alto, you can't take Palo Alto out of Minkoff, as the fast-talking director proved in an exclusive sitdown with the Palo Alto Weekly. The adventures of super-intelligent dog Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell of "Modern Family") and his boy Sherman (Max Charles) take them back in time via the WABAC machine (pronounced "way-back"), and Minkoff credits "a couple of great high school teachers" with bringing history to life for him personally.
"One was Miss Turner," he recalls. "And the other one was Win Belton. ... It's very interesting. It was American History, but he was African-American. And I didn't realize this until much later: We focused primarily on African-American history. And it was fantastic. It was great."
Minkoff adds shout-outs to art teacher Walt Buhler, theater teacher Joe Fenwick and dearly departed music teacher Marjorie Klein.
"I did also a lot of theater and music at the time ... shows at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, at TheatreWorks; I even did one show at the Palo Alto Players. But we used to be at the Lucie Stern Community Center so (I) did a lot of work there."
Back in the late '50s, the notion of a dog and his boy was just a clever irony, but now it's almost unavoidably a metaphor for alternative families, a theme Minkoff consciously explored.
"I think you hit the nail on the head. ... Looking at it from the perspective of today, you can't help but look at them then and say they're the original 'Modern Family.' It's an alternative family, and what's wrong with that?
"We thought Mr. Peabody is a character that is so exceptional in so many ways that he wouldn't even have given it a second thought that he could be a good father to Sherman," Minkoff continues. "And yet there's a kind of an implied question, which is 'How is that going to actually work? ... And how is Sherman going to feel about having a dog as a father?'
"Sherman is going to school for the first time ... where he's going to get a reflection back on what the world might think of that, and it may not be OK."
Minkoff points to his favorite scene in the film, when Sherman confesses that a girl at school new character Penny (Ariel Winter, also of "Modern Family") has called him a dog.
"Then all sorts of real emotions come up (for Mr. Peabody)," Minkoff enthuses. "I didn't think about Sherman when I adopted him. I didn't think about what this would mean and how this would affect him.' And to me, the fact that he doesn't know what to say is kind of great 'cause he's a character that sort of knows what to say in every possible circumstance and somehow, in this one moment, has really no words."
The publicity materials for the time-travel romp that is "Mr. Peabody & Sherman" describe requisite research into sword-fighting and jousting. But did Minkoff look into, say, time-travel itself?
"We did! Actually, we did!" he says. "We hired a guy named Ken Wharton, who is a physicist (based at San José State University) ... Basically as a consultant about the theories of time travel ... he came in and gave us a dissertation about the differences between the block universe and the multiverse, and the variety of films that apply to either of them, and how they might impact our story development."
Adapting a beloved property comes with certain challenges, of course, in pleasing both super-fans and neophytes.
"We wanted to make sure we brought enough of what it was in its original form to launch it for a whole new generation," Minkoff explains.
The original cartoons, created for producer Ward by cartoonist and writer Ted Key, were "all about the writing and the characters and the intelligence of the humor. And so that, the content of the show, is what we were trying to be true to, to make it as smart as possible, to make the jokes work on two levels and make sure there was (as much) for adults as for kids."
Though "Peabody" emerges from Redwood City's PDI/DreamWorks, digging back into Minkoff's Palo Alto days strikes a rich vein of Disney history. Minkoff recalls his friend Jeannette Smith, and her storied mother, a former Castilleja School and Paly teacher and musical director of Palo Alto Light Opera.
"Jane Frasier-Smith was apparently very close friends at Stanford with a guy named Frank Thomas, who is one of (Disney's) 'Nine Old Men' animators. And Frank Thomas' wife was named Jeanette; Jeanette (Smith is) named after her. And Frank and Ollie, who are a famous pair of friends who worked at Disney, met at Stanford."
And then there's Minkoff's beginnings as an animator, also traced back to Palo Alto.
"I was in a production of 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' in 1977, I think, with a guy named Kirk Wise, who was a friend of mine. And we met on that show. We both discovered that we liked to draw cartoons. We ended up making an animated movie together; we submitted it to CalArts. I got accepted in 1980; he came in '81. We both ended up working at Disney. He directed 'Beauty and the Beast.' And I directed 'The Lion King.'
"There you go," he says triumphantly. "That's a Palo Alto story!"