Charles Schulz's classic combination of humor and pathos is still a winner, and Snoopy's still adorable.
The Peanuts Movie
Charles Schulz‘s Peanuts gets re-packaged for a new generation in The Peanuts Movie, a snazzily animated update that understands completely what made the original comic strip and popular holiday TV specials so, well, special. Lifelong fans of Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy and the gang will have their worst fears quelled when the sweet reality dawns on them that, despite a significant visual face-lift, the new film looks, sounds, moves and feels like it’s sprung straight from the fingertips of the late Mr. Schulz himself.
What’s kind of extraordinary about this film is that it operates in entirely the same pre-Internet world the original cartoons did. Lucy doesn’t run a psychiatric help website; she still offers her “doctor’s” advice out of the same makeshift sidewalk stand she always has (her fee also stands unchanged at a nickel despite the coin’s virtual uselessness in 2015). Snoopy types on a typewriter, not a laptop; Linus plays a piano, not a light-up beat machine. When there’s a snow day, the kids play hockey on the lake. Charlie Brown’s favorite hobby is still flying his kite.
This commitment by director Steve Martino, the writers, and the folks at animation studio Blue Sky to keep the timelessness of the original cartoons gloriously intact is exactly what makes the new version feel so warm and fuzzy. Instead of evicting the characters from their world and plopping them into ours (á la that abominable Smurfs reboot) the filmmakers have decided, mercifully, to leave them be. The characters are at home, and so we feel at home, too.
The script, by Brian Schulz, Craig Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, is classic kid movie fare revolving around Charlie’s quest to win the heart of the new girl in town/class, who’s only ever referred to as “The Little Red-Haired Girl” (we almost never saw her in the strips or on the TV show, but she shows her face here). Life’s a steep uphill battle for poor Charlie, who’s perpetually down on his luck. There’s always been a surprising measure of pathos to his character, and the film isn’t afraid to beat him up a bit for our amusement. At one point, Lucy holds up a mirror to Charlie’s face and says, snidely, “This is the face of failure.” Ouch.
But Charlie’s failures are, of course, the at the heart of all Peanuts stories, and that tradition is maintained. Failure after failure, Charlie’s confidence is put through the ringer; he’s constantly embarrassed, petrified, scapegoated and mocked when all he wants to do is make others happy. He can never seem to catch a break, but somehow he endures his tragic existence with the help of Snoopy and his friends. It’s an inner struggle that even today’s kids can relate to. Everyone feels like a complete, insecure loser at some point in early life. The Peanuts Movie is cruel to Charlie most of the time, but unlike the incredibly melancholy TV specials, he does find a few bittersweet successes by story’s end.
The movie intermittently dives into the mind of Snoopy, who’s writing a novel about rescuing an unattainable love from his arch-nemesis “The Red Baron,” a pilotless fighter plane. Too much time is spent on these fantasies, and most of the mid-air battles feel like an excuse to make the most out of the 3-D glasses audiences are forced to shove onto their faces. Aside from these unremarkable flight sequences, however, the movie’s visual presentation is phenomenal. The original character designs remain essentially untouched though they’ve made the jump to three dimensions with more complex coloring, shading and depth. Their facial features still look hand-drawn, however, and use all of the same quirky lines and shapes we’re familiar with to express a range of emotions. The most significant change of all is the fact that the camera now has complete freedom of movement compared to the TV specials’ mostly static shots.
Noah Schnapp leads the cast of young voice actors as Charlie Brown, and the best compliment I can give he and his peers is that I honestly never gave a second thought to the fact that these were all-new voices. The cast does a bang-up job, especially Hadley Bell Miller (Lucy) and Alexander Garfin (Linus), who each share some surprisingly poignant exchanges with Schnapp. Kristin Chenoweth plays Snoopy’s made-up love interest, which will be cool to anyone who got a kick out of George Clooney’s “cameo” on South Park.
Sticking out like a sore thumb is a bouncy Meghan Trainor song that rears its ugly head a couple of times throughout the movie. It’s jarring and awful and is the only cheap play the movie makes to pander to young audiences. The rest of the songs are Peanuts staples like “Christmas Time Is Here” and the pocket masterpiece “Linus and Lucy” by Vince Guaraldi, which brought a tear to my eye. Failure and disappointment have always been at the core of Peanuts, but The Peanuts Movie is anything but a failure. It’s a giant victory, not just as a movie, but as an example that Hollywood reboots don’t always have to be obsessed with what’s hip and new; they can be old-fashioned and unpretentious and still be as entertaining as anything else at the theater.