Decades before Dos Equis introduced the most interesting man in the world via a beer commercial, that title might have belonged to a dog — a debonair, bow tie-wearing, Harvard-educated cartoon beagle named Mr. Peabody.
The star of "Peabody's Improbable History," a series of six-minute animated segments that appeared alongside producer Jay Ward's "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons starting in 1959, Mr. Peabody spoke eight languages, worked on government science projects and bore the moniker "The Woof of Wall Street" for his knack with stocks. In the shorts, which aired on NBC and ABC through the early 1960s, the canny canine adopted a human boy named Sherman and built him a time-traveling device through which they explored such destinations as ancient Egypt and Renaissance Italy — averting crises, assisting on masterpieces and dropping puns as they hurtled through the eons.
On March 7, the refined Mr. Peabody returns, this time in the DreamWorks Animation movie "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," a CG-animated comedy directed by Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King," "Stuart Little").
In the new film, in which Peabody is voiced by "Modern Family's" Ty Burrell and Sherman by child actor Max Charles, the dog retains his tweedy charm, which originated in a design by animator Ted Key — Peabody still wears round glasses and a bow tie, and walks on two legs with his chin as high as a "Downton Abbey" butler.
Though he kept Peabody's classic look intact, Minkoff, who collaborated with Ward's daughter, Tiffany Ward, also provided the dog with an emotional backstory. In an early sequence, Peabody appears as a puppy at the pound, precocious but unwanted because he deems the game of fetch a futile enterprise.
"A lot of people thought Mr. Peabody would be dated in a weird way, but I never did," Minkoff said. "I saw him as a classic character who had all of these great attributes. We wanted to maintain those qualities from the original show and yet make them more dimensional. There's all these issues they didn't have the time to explore in the original show — how does Mr. Peabody become the way he is? What must it be like for him to be not just a remarkable person but also a dog?"
One early fear Minkoff had was that the hyper-intelligent character might come across as too aloof — a worry he addressed by casting Burrell, who voices Peabody as a kind of relentless enthusiast.
"Peabody's so intellectual, so smart, if handled in a way that lacked warmth, it wouldn't work," Minkoff said. "Ty was able to convey this great intellect without having it be too cold."
Minkoff also updated the central conceit of the TV shorts, adding some nuance to the unusual relationship between Mr. Peabody and his human charge.
"Part of the comedy is that Mr. Peabody is the master and Sherman is the dog," Minkoff said. "In a modern world, we don't always want to see a father treat a son like that. It may have been funny in the 1960s, but now it's not funny. You want to make sure that the characters are connecting with people today."