Young children today living in Fresno and all over the world may not remember this, but there was a time when newspaper comic strips were all the rage. The stories were episodic and short (often told in only four panels), the characters memorable, and many of these strips became so popular that they spawned expanded multimedia empires all their own. There likely dozens of examples of such iconic comic strips that this examiner can list off, but the one that has always left he largest mark on my childhood, and the childhoods of millions more across the world, is Peanuts.
Created by Charles M. Schulz in in 1950, Peanuts told the stories of the daily lives of a group of grade school kids living in a small town. One of the biggest ironies of the strip was that Schulz managed to create an endearing and hopeful story despite the premise being “the great American unsuccess story.” The main character, a boy named Charlie Brown, is a nice, well-meaning boy, but he is also a born loser who constantly fails at absolutely everything he tries, regardless of his best efforts. He can’t fly a kite, he can’t win at baseball, he can’t kick a football, etc. The kids at his school may still be his friends, but they still never hesitate to berate him for all of his shortcomings. Schulz never wrote down to his child readers, letting them know that life is hard and that you will see failure in your life, but that is all part of growing up and learning how to deal with those faults and overcome them will make you a better person. This is likely the key to Charlie Brown’s endearing popularity as people are easily able to relate to his struggle and, conversely, they applaud him in the rare instances where he does succeed.
Peanuts became an instant success when first published, and that popularity resulted in it being adapted into numerous television specials, several of which, including the now culturally iconic A Charlie Brown Christmas (which will be celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year), and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, won or were nominated for Emmy Awards. These holiday specials remain popular to this day and remain in syndication in the U.S. during the corresponding seasons. In fact, in 2013, TV Guide listed the Peanuts specials as being the fourth Greatest TV Cartoon of All Time. The Peanuts franchise has also expanded into animated films starting with A Boy Named Charlie Brown and followed with Snoopy, Come Home, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!). The strip has even been adapted into a critically acclaimed stage musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, being a successful and often-performed production.
The Peanuts franchise has endured and remained in the public eye to this day, even fifteen years after the publication of the final strip on January 3, 2000 and ran in newspapers on February 13, 2000 (only a day after Schulz’s death). But now is seems the time has come for Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the gang to come into the lives of a whole new generation in what may be they most unique incarnation yet.
The Peanuts Movie is the first feature film based on the series in 35 years, and thus, the first to be made without Charles Schulz’s direct approval. To make up for this, the film has been both written and produced by Craig and Bryan Schulz (the creator’s son and grandson, respectively). Most prominently, this film marks the first time that the series has been brought to life in 3D computer animation, rather than traditional hand drawn animation. But the real question is does it succeed in living up to the Peanuts legacy?
The plot of this movie is very, very simple. It is the middle of winter and after all these years, Charlie Brown has grown frustrated with his constant failure in virtually everything he tries in spite of his best efforts. But when the Little Red-Haired Girl moves into the house across the street from his, Charlie Brown resolves to finally turn his luck around, at least enough to convince the Little Red-Haired Girl that there is more to him than his reputation would attest. Taking the advice of his “psychiatrist,” Lucy, he decides to make himself appear more confident. With the help of his beagle, Snoopy, Charlie Brown works to succeed in several different endeavors, including performing a magic act for the school talent show and learning to dance…But, true to form, some seemingly cosmic force is always there to make him fail no matter how well things seem to be going.
And yet, Charlie Brown’s fortunes do appear to be improving when he is assigned to partner with the Little Red-Haired Girl on a book report project, and also the results of the school’s most recent standardized test have come in and, apparently, Charlie Brown is the only kid in the history of the school to ever receive a perfect score. Ol’ Blockhead instantly becomes the school celebrity, a reputation that Charlie Brown may not necessarily deserve. Can Charlie Brown finally, for once, overcome the odds and prove that he is a winner, or is he forever doomed to be a failure for the rest of his life.
In a separate story line that intermingles with Charlie Brown’s throughout the film, Snoopy finds a typewriter and, inspired by Charlie Brown’s efforts to meet the Little Red-Haired Girl, he begins writing a novel about the World War I Flying Ace and his fight to take down the Red Baron and rescue the love of his life, Fifi. Aided by his friend Woodstock, Snoopy finds himself acting out his story, encounters that the beagle acts out in humorous ways.
What I just described in three paragraphs is the longest, most detailed plot synopsis I could write, but really, there isn’t a whole lot of plot here. Charlie Brown sees the Little Red-Haired Girl move in and he works to better himself so she may like him, and at the same time Snoopy goes about writing and enacting his classic fantasy about his aerial rivalry with the Red Baron. That’s it! There is no drastic modernization of these characters or crafting of some big, complex plot about saving the world or anything truly epic like you would expect with most cartoons that get expanded into animated movies. And you know something? The film is all the better for it!
Children these days have so many animated films to choose from and, even I must admit, many of them try to be big, weird and is some cases obnoxious. The Peanuts Movie, by contrast, goes for a far more simple and old school approach. The humor is tame but not pandering, the characters simple but lovable, and there is nothing this examiner can see in this film that may be potentially offensive to children. Some critics like Jim Vejvoda of IGN have appreciated this old fashioned approach, but voiced concern that children of today might not be able to enjoy it when they are so used to the energy and activity of film like Cars, Frozen and Minions. I can certainly understand the concern for that argument, but the screening I went to including a lot of kids that did seem to be enjoying it just fine. Besides, kids are smart and despite all the distractions and the seemingly cookie-cutter media they are so often exposed to, they know a good thing when they see it, so lets give them the benefit of the doubt and have faith that they will give The Peanuts Movie a fair chance.
Peanuts stories can become surprisingly complex upon analysis (A Boy Named Charlie Brown being an excellent example), but at its heart we always understood that these were the everyday lives of these kids. And as hard as it is for someone my age to admit, there is now a whole new generation that likely does not know this franchise because they did not get to grow up with it, other than the holiday specials that run every year. So, in a way, this film has the burden of reintroducing younger kids to what Peanuts is all about, and it does that in spades! As soon as we see this animation and hear that famous Lucy and Linus theme, we instantly feel right at home.
The movie wastes no time in letting us know exactly who Charlie Brown is and why we all should love him despite how much of a failure he is. We know right away what kind of character Snoopy is from his erratic and silly mannerisms and the relationship he has with his owner. We ever get the characters of the other kids (Lucy, Linus, Sally, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, etc) very quick, even though the film doesn’t really deviate to their own plot lines (more on that later). The humor of seeing Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite in the middle of winter is charming and his inevitable failure makes us all feel at home.
As I said earlier, one of the best appeals of the Charlie Brown character is that he is so likable despite his faults that in the rare moments when things do start to go right for him (for a little while at least), we are even more prod of his than usual. Some of my personal favorite Peanuts specials understood this, and so too does this film. The Little Red-Haired Girl, a long-standing fixture of Charlie’s affections in the franchise, give him hope to work hard to turn his life around, and we all see that he really means it and it gets to the point that his efforts start to pay off. We see that he has his magic act in order for the school talent show, his practicing learning how to dance pays off, and most important of all his perfect score on the standardized test makes him the most popular kid in school. Sure, we all know that these good times are all going to fail and that the Little Red-Haired Girl will, seemingly, fail to even notice him, but we all see how honest and simultaneously hopeful and skeptical his is of himself that it is impossible not to pity him. Actually, I’d like to point out the only reason his magic act doesn’t work out is because his sister Sally goes on stage before him and so he willingly humiliates himself to help her act look better, a scene I found to be very charming and a good message for kids. There was also the resolution of the what really happened on the standardized test, which I’m not going to spoil for anyone, but as tragic as it is is is also a good message and says volumes about Charlie’s character and why we still like him despite everything; that, and it completely shortchanges the potential ‘liar revealed’ story that we’ve all seen before.
So, yes, clearly Charlie Brown’s story works very well in this film. But what about the other characters? Well…the truth is that the other kids don’t really get stories all to themselves. Most of what we see of them are little callbacks to what we already know about them in places where they are appropriate, and seeing how they either tie into or occasionally cross paths with Charlie himself. For example, Lucy is still the snobby girl we all know that always call Charlie a blockhead and we see her sitting at her psychiatrist booth and crushing on Schroeder and, yes, pulling the football away for poor Charlie, but she has no story arc to herself. Same thing with her brother Linus, we see him carrying around his blanket, trying to get away from Sally, and offering up good advise as Charlie’s best friend, but that’s it. Schroeder is still the classical music lover with a piano in his desk, Peppermint Patty is still a tomboy who cares more about playing hockey than doing her homework, Marcie is still a brainiac that calls Patty ‘sir’ all the time, etc. Normally this might be a problem, especially to fans who favor some of these characters and wanted to see more of them. But this is a very simple story that knows exactly what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is Charlie’s Brown’s story; the rest of the gang is just along for the ride and seem totally at home with it.
Having said all of that, there is one more plotline here that should be discuss. One thing that this examiner has seen getting criticism is the story of Snoopy writing his novel and role playing as the World War I Flying Ace at war with the Red Baron. Of course, anyone who has grown up with Peanuts knows that this is a long standing tradition in the franchise; Snoopy’s rivalry with the Red Baron is the stuff of legend. But the criticism is that these scenes, despite being very well animated, feel like filler as IGN puts it. I agree with that to a point; these sequences do not serve to drive the main story with Charlie and the Little Red-Haired Girl but rather to parallel it with Snoopy’s most well-known fantasy life. Nevertheless, these scenes do serve to break up the devoted focus to the main plot ant there is no denying that they are great fun to look at. Besides, we still get plenty of other scenes of Snoopy trying to sneak into school with the other kids and helping out his best friend Charlie Brown on his quest of self-improvement as well. I did not get to see the film in 3D, but I have to imagine that these Red Baron scenes are where it shines the best.
And now that I’ve touched on that I suppose it’s time to discuss the actual look of the film. To put it bluntly…I loved it! In fact, I loved the look form the moment I saw the first teaser trailer. Like a lot of veteran Peanuts fans, there was some curiosity of seeing the gang in computer animation for the first time after 65 years of hand drawn media. But Blue Sky Studios, the same studio behind the Ice Age films and Horton Hears a Who, have taken extreme care to find a rounded, three-dimensional look that still perfectly captured the iconic style of Charles Schulz’s artwork. The result is a very unique and original-looking film that feels almost vintage in its presentation. There are even a could of black-and-white touched here and there to call back to the original style even more. No complaints here; it may have been a risky experiment, but it this case I feel that it was an experiment that paid off.
The voice cast is made up of actual little kids and that further adds to the charm of the production. Furthermore, each of the kids are expertly cast and manage to the character sound familiar just as we all remember them from our youth. Such standout performances include Noah Schnapp as Charlie Brown, Alex Garfin as Linus van Pelt, Hadley Belle Miller as Lucy van Pelt, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi as the Little Red-Haired Girl and Frieda, Mariel Sheets as Sally Brown, Noah Johnston as Schroeder, Venus Omega Schultheis as Peppermint Patty, Rebecca Bloom as Marcie, Marelik “Mar Mar” Walker as Franklin, AJ Teece as Pig Pen, Anastasia Bredikhina as Patty, Madisyn Shipman as Violet Gray, William “Alex” Wunsch as Shermy, Micah Revelli as Little Kid, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews as Miss Othmar and Mrs. Little Red-Haired Girl (using his trombone to create the familiar “wah-wah” sounds for the adult characters), Kristin Chenoweth as Fifi, Snoopy’s love interest, and via archival recordings, the late Bill Melendez reprising his role as the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock.
Overall, The Peanuts Movie is a wonderfully simple, wholesome family film that offers plenty for nostalgic fans of the comic strip and cartoons of old and this examiner believes will entertain younger kids as well, even if it is decidedly a departure for the the often frantic approach of children’s films these days. The animation captures the original style brilliantly, bringing it into the new CG-standard of today while remaining remarkably faithful to Charles Schulz’s vision. The story is simple, relateable, and it even offers an optimistic, feel-good ending. This examiner highly recommends it, especially to parents with young children. I give it an enthusiastic four stars!