It doesn’t seem so long ago that kids would run to the weekend newspaper in order to pull the full-color comic section, does it? Granted, now reading the Funnies is about as old-fashioned as finding out what’s on TV right now by getting out the printed TV Guide, but at the intersection between generations lies the world inhabited by The Peanuts Movie. Kids may be coming to Charlie Brown and Company for the first time, or they may know him solely through annual Halloween and Christmas specials. Their parents, meanwhile, will recall reading those old strips, and collecting the paraphernalia on lunch boxes and the like. No matter your age though, The Peanuts Movie will definitely appeal. It’s a true all-ages delight without sarcasm or cynicism.
If there was trepidation about converting a beloved classic into a modern 3-D animated movie it was understandable. Remember Mr. Peabody & Sherman, anyone? But it took about 20 seconds for me to forget any misgivings and just slide right into this re-imagined Peanuts world, although “re-imagined” is almost the wrong turn of phrase. Yes, this is 3-D computer animated, but there’s a wonderful hand-made quality to the art. There’s still heavy emphasis on line work on the facial expressions of the characters, like someone drew faces with felt-tipped markers on the 3-D models.
Depending on the scene, or the shot, you maybe thinking that you’re looking at stop-motion animation, or computer-enhanced pen and ink. There are moments where you can see the fuzz on Snoopy, and then Woodstock enters frame followed by those distinctive dashes, the ones that indicate movement in the comic strip. Indeed, despite the 3-D format, the strip and the artwork of Charles Schultz is repeatedly and lovingly referenced. Yet the film is also bold enough to use the technology to its advantage when called for. Snoopy’s Red Baron sequences are wonderfully rendered and the closest the film does in trying to make a money shot. The dog fight over the Eiffel Tower is darn close to being edge-of-your-seat.
Story-wise, The Peanuts Movie is a greatest hits package featuring all the great recurring gags like the Red Baron, including the Kite-Eating Tree, Lucy’s psychiatry stand, and yes, even a football gag. The overall story is about Charlie Brown’s attempts to impress the Little Red-Haired Girl, including learning to dance, entering the talent show, and drawing her name as a book report partner, but the movie is set up like series of comic strips brought to life, building up to a gag, and then moving on the next one once the joke has landed. Still, there is a journey for Charlie Brown, a quest to prove himself greater than the lovable loser he more or less perceives himself to be.
Directed with overwhelming attention to detail Horton Hears a Who helmer Sherman and, from a script lovingly and thoughtfully co-written by Schultz’s son Craig and his grandson Bryan (along with relative newcomer Cornelius Uliano), Peanuts is blessedly old school. You never once see Charlie Brown with an iPhone, there’s no obnoxious pop culture references that the core audience doesn’t get anyway, and there’s no Top 40 soundtrack feature the likes Ellie Goulding or Vampire Weekend covering pop hits of the 80s and 90s. Martino and his team shrewdly deduced that the material stands up on its own without “modernizing” it.*
*There is a scene though where Charlie Brown takes out the recycling including a big stack of newspapers. As a former newspaper man, I appreciate the nod, but let’s be honest, no one has that many newspapers in their blue box anymore unless they’re a hoarder, and then why would they be *throwing out* those newspapers?
Instead, Peanuts offers a simple, old-fashioned – but still relevent – story about being yourself and doing the right thing. Charlie Brown may feel like a loser, he may even seem like it to his friends, but he’s an upstanding young man that gives to others before taking for himself, he refuses credit for things he doesn’t deserve to take credit for, and he never gives up in the face of overwhelming odds, obstacles or past failures. And who can’t identify with feeling of loving someone from a far because you don’t want to disappointment them close up. Whether or not Charlie Brown overcomes his anxieties to actually say two words to the face of the Little-Red-Haired-Girl is a surprise I’ll leave for the viewer to discover.
For long-time fans of the Peanuts you will have no problem recognizing these characters – Linus, Pig Pen, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie – they all get their moment in the spotlight; Schroeder is the beneficiary of the film’s sole meta-gag, accompanying the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare at the very beginning of the film. Again, walking the fine line between the old and the new, Charlie Brown and friends are all voice by real child actors, while recordings of the late Bill Melendez are used for Snoopy and Woodstock. Trombone Shorty steps in to provide brass for all the adults in the Peanuts’ world, and Kristin Chenoweth, whose big break came while playing Sally in a Broadway revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is the sole celebrity voice involved.
Composer Christophe Beck also used musical cues from Vince Guaraldi‘s score from the Charlie Brown TV specials, again accentuating the familiarity of the piece. In fact, Beck almost riffs on Guaraldi’s score in a way that says that this all part of the same world. Kids who are maybe introduced to Charlie Brown and friends through The Peanuts Movie, will have an easy time watching the Thanksgiving and Christmas specials and believing that this is all part of the same world. For those that grew up on them, these are the characters you know and love, and they emerge into this format the same as they always have been, and that is a pleasant and unexpected surprise to the credit of the filmmakers.
The Peanuts Movie is an utterly crowd-pleasing affair, perhaps one of those family movies that the adults in the audience will love more than the kids, but the kids in the theater with me certainly seemed to be having a good time. I’m glad to know that Snoopy still translates across generations, and that almost 100 years after he was shot down out of the skies over France, kids can still thrill to the idea of going plane-to-plane against the Red Baron. In other words, The Peanuts Movie is so Peanuts you’ll barely notice the state-of-the art animation.