As someone who grew up surrounded by Charles M. Schulz‘ Peanuts – I read the strips, owned several treasuries, watched the TV specials, and even has a Peanuts lunchbox in elementary school – it’s a little daunting to consider that a generation of youngsters may not have the same nostalgic connection to the characters that I do. It’s been 15 years since Schulz’ death, and while Peanuts has remained in steady rotation in most major newspapers… well, you can see just how little access a young person would have to Peanuts just by my use of the word “newspaper.”
I would say that good ol’ Charlie Brown and his extended network of friends are vital and important things to keep alive for a new generation – I could perhaps write volumes on the glorious innocent melancholy of Peanuts – so I can admire, even with apprehensiveness, Fox’s desire to bring Peanuts into the digital age with a feature-length, CGI animated version of the characters. While the thought of “modernizing” the oddly timeless Peanuts characters with computer effects and modern pop songs can make a purist wince, one can at least take comfort in the fact that the Peanuts characters, even through decades of supersaturated commercialization, have managed to maintain their innocence and purity.
This new film is not the over-commercialized blow that some fear it might be. Indeed, The Peanuts Movie, as directed by Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who!) and co-written by Schulz’ own son and grandson, manages to capture much of the soul of the original strips and TV specials that are likely dear to your heart.
Peanuts, you see, is a rather morose strip. Charlie Brown is saddened by his lot in life, and has to quietly suffer the taunting of his peers as well as his own crippling self-doubt. He’s a good kid, but his life is not filled with sunshine. The Peanuts Movie knows to keep Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) as a perpetually put-upon underdog. Good ol’ wishy-washy Charlie Brown. The film is largely about how Charlie Brown is unable to talk to the new girl in his neighborhood, his new crush, known only as The Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Capaldi), and how he is equally unable to win her affections by proving himself as a brain, a dancer, a magician, or anything else of note (despite being pretty good that those activities).
To make sure the tots are paying attention, we also see several extended sequences from within the stalwart beagle Snoopy’s imagination, wherein he sees himself as a World War I flying ace, fighting off the Red Baron, and winning the heart of Fifi. These sequences are exciting enough, although I would have appreciated more time with, say Linus (Alexander Garfin). I could have also done without the inclusion of songs by Meghan Trainor. Jazz musician Vince Guaraldi is still, after decades, plenty, thanks.
The style of The Peanuts Movie may seem odd at first, but the eye easily adapts. It’s in 3-D CGI, and the characters have realist hair and flesh (Charlie Brown’s horn-like curl of unmoving hair is a bit distressing, and I couldn’t tell you what’s happening on poor Linus’ head), but the designers kept the images largely flat, leaving characters with their squiggle-line mouths and eyeballs like globs of India ink. These characters are mercifully not anatomically correct, allowing them to love and move more like Schulz’ comic strip children than fake humans. Plus, the filmmakers did clearly know what they were handling, and there are innumerable references to the TV specials, the strips, and other Peanuts ephemera; fans will have plenty to mull over.
At the end of the day, however, The Peanuts Movie is not terribly substantial. It’s amusing, fun, and very sweet, but it’s not knock-over hilarious or tear-jerking, and it won’t feel like a redefinition of a world left behind by a previous generation. But then that was never the point of Peanuts. It was never meant to be epic. It was only ever meant to be sweet, maudlin, and halcyon. In that regard, The Peanuts Movie is remarkably on the nose.