Thanks to my mom, I’ve been following Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang for as long as I can remember. Like Charlie, I too am a sad sack who’s life the universe sees fit to ruin at all cost. So when I first heard 20th Century bringing the gang to CG life, I was already worried about what might be done to one of my favorites. Would they alter it too much? Would a new film lose the original darkness and edge that made the comics so special?
It turns out I had no reason to worry because The Peanuts Movie plays it so safe, and so close to the chest, that it’s almost like watching a classic Peanuts special. For better or worse, it’s a love letter to the Peanuts legacy.
The Peanuts Movie
Director: Steve Martino
Release Date: November 6th, 2015
The Peanuts Movie is all about Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp), an awkward kid with a debilitating self-esteem issue thanks to years and years of being teased by the other neighborhood kids. Just as he was wishing for a blank slate, a mysterious new, red-haired girl moves into town. After falling hard for her, Charlie’s got to muster up the courage and do some crazy things in order to impress her and get her to notice him. While he’s doin all of that, his dog Snoopy (thanks to Bill Melendez’s archived voice work) finds a typewriter and begins writing about the WWI Flying Ace and his rivalry with the infamous Red Baron.
First things first, Peanuts is absolutely stunning. I honestly have no idea how Blue Sky Studios managed to pull this off. Just like the film’s content, Peanuts‘ visuals are both heartily nostalgic (thanks to a few 2D flourishes like little hearts and backgrounds every now and then) and groundbreaking in its effort. Characters move as smoothly as they would in 2D while avoiding CG’s blurring motions thanks to an adept use of choppy movement. I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is Blue Sky’s mascot Scrat (from the Ice Age series). Just as his movement is broken, yet fluid so it captures the essence of old Looney Tunes shorts, Peanuts’ animation captures the essence of the TV specials. And then there are all the little details therein like Snoopy’s fur, the whiskers in Charlie’s lone curl of hair, and the Flying Ace sequences look pretty good in 3D. But once you get beyond how great it looks, you’ll soon realize that it may be too comfortable taking yet another trip down memory lane.
Because it’s both a reinvention and a reintroduction to the Peanuts series, the film is almost required to make the necessary homages to its classic jokes and settings. Every classic Peanuts joke is here, quite literally, and you’ll be hard pressed to find them funny again in this new setting. These jokes have already been made available through the specials replayed through the holidays each year, so it’s really a matter of whether or not you’ll appreciate them again through this new filter. It’s a celebration unfortunately caught in the past, and while these jokes are definitely delightful and may mean more to new audiences, it’s just a shame that this new film didn’t take the chance to create new memories for Charlie Brown. It’s even more glaring when the newer bits work very well. There’s this scene where Charlie is getting “Psychiatric Help” from Lucy that’s absolutely fabulous in how dark the writing duo of Bryan and Craig Schulz take it. At one point, she shoves a mirror in his face and asks Charlie what he sees, and all he can say in response is “A loser.” While it sounds wonky on paper, it’s a sequence that actually utilizes our knowledge of the characters in the past rather than be hindered by it.
In fact, that’s one of the boldest choices The Peanuts Movie makes. While the humor and most of the content is stuck in the past (thus making sequences featuring new pop music from Meghan Trainor feel even more out of place), Charlie Brown has actually become a mix of his many identities. The film only works because the writing, actor Noah Schnapp, and visuals have mastered this newest iteration of Charlie Brown. He’s a mix of many of his past incarnations: The outright loser from Schulz’s original comic strips. the awkward kid from the holiday specials, and the more positive Charlie from later direct to video specials. Yet with all of those influences, he’s still got his own new layer in the film. They’ve added this crippling self-doubt that’s so current, it clashes with the rest of the film’s nostalgic tone. As the kids exist in a world with rotary phones, Charlie’s pondering existential crises in love.
While the humor can be a bit clunky, and Charlie Brown is fantastic, the film does take some getting used to. Since it is so stuck in the past, it’s taking on a format we haven’t seen in quite a while. Broken into vignettes fueling a central arc, each major sequence in Peanuts feels like it could be a stand-alone special of its own. Each major scene has a beginning middle and end, so it doesn’t really flow like a traditional film, per se. It’s an odd pacing that, while not entirely bad, does detract from the enjoyment overall. Going in you’ve got to realize that you’re taking the good with the bad, but the “bad” isn’t the worst thing in the world. The Peanuts Movie‘s biggest flaw is that it’s too celebratory and nostalgic, but that’s also such a non-problem to have.
I certainly have enjoyed myself, but I also don’t feel compelled to watch this over and over again like every other Peanuts thing I’ve revisited in the past. It’s a delightful and breezy film, but I’m not sure if everyone will have the same reaction to it that I did. It’s fun to walk down memory lane every once in a while, but you can’t expect everyone to stick around.