SDG Reviews ‘The Peanuts Movie’

You’re still a good man, Charlie Brown: Even in computer animation, the Peanuts gang retains their old-fashioned charm.

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The Peanuts Movie comes billed as being “From the imagination of Charles Schulz,” and, almost astonishingly, it pretty much is. You want a reboot like this to be like The Muppets, the sweetly sincere 2011 movie with Jason Segel; you fear that it will be like The Muppets, the 2015 mockumentary-style ABC series, which many fans find overly jaded and cynical.

It seems nearly impossible, in fact, that the sketchy soul of Schulz’s work, which somehow managed the jump to low-budget hand-drawn cel animation, could survive the transition to high-tech 3D computer animation. Surely the result must be something in the vicinity of The Smurfs or Alvin and the Chipmunks.

But no. Against all odds, The Peanuts Movie persuasively returns us to the old neighborhood of A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

The old place looks different, yet the same; it’s 3D with a 2D aesthetic, and even occasional, welcome incursions of hand-drawn 2D-style animation. The surfaces, textures and lighting border on photorealism, yet the simple shapes, movements and layouts are all vintage Peanuts. It’s a bit jarring, not necessarily in a bad way, to see the fleecy lining of Charlie Brown’s cap or individual strands of Frieda’s mass of naturally curly hair behaving like simple line drawings, but it credibly honors the naive quality of the earliest Peanuts animations.

No effort has been made to update this world or make it more modern or relevant. The phones have coiled cords; Charlie Brown struggles with a leaky fountain pen; and Snoopy bangs away unapologetically on his mechanical typewriter. Young viewers are expected to roll with the notion that there was a time long ago when children did not carry iPhones and played outdoors with kites instead of indoors with PlayStations.

Crucially, it sounds pretty much the same. As always, the Peanuts gang are voiced by kid actors, and they all sound persuasively like themselves. Peter Robbins, who voiced Charlie Brown in the 1960s beginning with A Charlie Brown Christmas, will always be the definitive Charlie Brown to me, but I have no trouble accepting Chad Webber in the role in Snoopy Come Home, and I have no trouble with Noah Schnapp here.

Snoopy and Woodstock sound exactly the same, because their vocalizations are all borrowed from old recordings of veteran Peanuts director and producer Bill Melendez, who always voiced these characters. The grownups sound the same — that is, they sound like a muted trombone going wah-wah, which is what they are (New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty does the honors). Vince Guaraldi’s beloved jazz compositions are in evidence, most notably the classic “Linus and Lucy,” though the score is bigger and more orchestral than vintage Peanuts, and pop numbers by Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida make fairly unobtrusive appearances.

Most vitally, it feels pretty much the same, thanks to a screenplay by Schulz’s son Craig Schulz, Craig’s son Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, who all share producer credits with Paul Feig and Michael J. Travers. The writers play it safe, with familiar themes and situations rendered just fresh enough to be worthwhile. Director Steve Martino, who directed the only Dr. Seuss feature film to date that did any justice to its source material, has more to draw on here, with solid results. 

Punches are pulled, it is true. The world is not allowed to be quite as cruel to Charlie Brown, and our hero is never quite as self-pitying, as Schulz would have it — which, to be fair, was sometimes too cruel and too self-pitying. For the most part, the basic dynamic is honored. Charlie Brown dreams of being the hero, yet seems destined to be the goat; even when the universe seems to offer him the brass ring, it must be too good to be true.

Looking up at the stars one night, Charlie Brown consoles himself with the fancy that “one of those stars is my star, and I know that my star will always be there for me. Like a comforting voice saying, ‘Don’t give up, kid.’” This is followed, of course, by the least inspiring falling star in movie history. (Does this moment come from the comic strip? It seems familiar, but the punchline wouldn’t work as well on the printed page.)

On the other hand, Snoopy is less capricious and more loyal to his master than in the old days — which, again, was sometimes a problem in the old days, but occasionally it’s a bit too much of a kinder, gentler Peanuts, at least for my taste. Charlie Brown still struggles gamely in a world that seems to be against him, but he’s given a bit more dignity and agency than usual. Sometimes he fails because that’s the way it goes, but sometimes the outward failure belies a moral victory. Seldom has it been so clear that he’s a good man, that Charlie Brown.

No new characters are added to diversify the cast. The only clearly minority character onscreen, as usual, is Franklin, and he’s as incidental as any of the supporting cast; perhaps he could have had a bigger role, or perhaps an extra character or two could have been added. That’s one adjustment I would have welcomed.

An occasional element I’m not surprised to not to find is Linus’ religious awareness. A Boy Named Charlie Brown opened with a cloud-gazing scene in which Linus casually reports seeing Saint Paul and the stoning of Saint Stephen. If The Peanuts Movie gets a sequel, I double-dog dare the filmmakers to drop something like that in it. For that matter, let’s see more formal inventiveness and visual abstraction in the vein of the best Peanuts feature film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

If anything about The Peanuts Movie demands the label “reboot,” it’s this: The film reimagines the first arrival of the Little Red-Haired Girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood and school. The film cleverly blends all of Charlie Brown’s giddiness, anxiety and self-humiliation around the Little Red-Haired Girl with a hero-to-goat arc in which the triumphs that Charlie Brown hopes will impress his first crush slip through his fingers.

Meanwhile, Snoopy engages in his WWI Flying Ace fantasy campaign against the Red Baron, a storyline that is used more to provide doses of action and spectacle that are de rigueur in a modern cartoon, but which the main story gratifyingly avoids. The story has a meandering, low-key quality that’s a welcome relief in the era of Minions, Hotel Transylvania and even Inside Out.

Will today’s kids connect with it? I have no idea. The updated look aside, the recent family film I’m most reminded of is Disney’s 2011 Winnie the Pooh, an even more gently old-fashioned, nostalgic revisiting of a classic property that was gratifyingly true to the voice of the original author, but vanished without a ripple at the box office. Does Peanuts have more currency than Winnie the Pooh? Probably. It’s too bad about Winnie-the-Pooh. There should be a market for such films.

In the very end (spoiler alert) The Peanuts Movie’s softening of Schulz’s pessimism tips over into wish fulfillment…or perhaps, given how it occurs right on cue, it is more like an answer to a prayer, as if the universe that is normally against Charlie Brown is for once on his side just when he cries out for help. Sentimental fans may appreciate this; I would have preferred a subtler kind of grace. (Leaving the theater, my 12-year-old daughter Anna had an excellent suggestion that would have greatly improved the ending, with Charlie Brown missing the big moment he hopes for, but still ultimately getting the affirmation he deserves.)

It’s true that it doesn’t end quite there. If you’ve always wanted to see Charlie Brown finally kick that football, a dream Schulz was determined he should never achieve — well (spoiler alert again), you won’t get it here, thank goodness. But even in defeat, lying on his back, at the very end, Charlie Brown smiles ruefully…and in that smile is a moral victory, or perhaps an emotional one, that he never would have gotten from Schulz.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is studying for the permanent diaconate for the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.
Follow him on Twitter.

 

Caveat Spectator: Nothing problematic. Fine family viewing.