Admit it: when you first heard that Hollywood was going to be making a CG animated film based on the beloved characters from the Peanuts comic strip and TV specials without the input of the late Charles Schultz, you were at best skeptical and thought “good grief”. At worst you might have let out an outraged “aaugh!” And when you heard it was going to be made by the studio that brought you Ice Age, Robots, Rio, and Epic, whatever level of unease you felt probably ratcheted up the scale. So did the filmmakers successfully kick the ball or fall flat on their backs? That all depends on what preconceived ideas you bring into the theatre. Are you expecting a faithful adaptation or a modern take?
There are two plots at play in this film. The first follows Charlie Brown in a series of unfortunate events throughout the school year as he attempts to impress a new red-haired student in his class. These scenes stick to the lovable loser theme well established for the character, but end with him not coming off too badly. “It’s not his fault! He’s not a blockhead because of dumb bad luck or his general Charlie Brown-iness, it’s because he’s just too selfless and caring!” While not severely off-putting, it’s definitely a change from the original and more in line with the politically-correct sensibilities of today that don’t allow someone to just be a blockhead because they’re a blockhead!
Another problem with this part of the story is the serial nature of it all. There is not a cohesive plot but a group of standalone pieces that make it up: here’s the episode where Charlie Brown does the talent show, then the episode where he learns to dance, then the episode with the book report… While each scene advances the story of Charlie Brown trying to look good in front of his crush, each part is so segregated from the rest of the film that you could rearrange them or take one out and add something different without effecting the film’s finale.
Speaking of the finale, I feel like the writing team dropped the ball a bit. The 1950s and 1960s Peanuts had a bleakness and a harder edge than is allowed in entertainment aimed at young people these days, but it also had an inherent sincerity and openness that was undeniably genuine. Today we try to protect everyone from any minor offense and worry so much about hurt feelings, but it’s a forced and practiced carefulness around each other that’s expected of us but not necessarily real. What’s that nickel’s worth of psychiatric analysis got to do with anything? You can’t imitate real sincerity, and the ending of this film was so exactly like someone from 2015 trying to fake 1950s that it came off like a stilted, overly explained deus ex machina. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll understand when you see it.
Humor has always been a big part of the franchise, and the film does not disappoint. As I mentioned, there are two plots that weave through the film. The second follows Snoopy’s flights of fancy fighting the Red Baron. Like the TV specials, these have hardly any effect on the main story, but a good amount of time is spent on them. The Big Bow-Wow steals the show (as usual) and provides some of the biggest laughs. In fact, you could cut all of these scenes together and have one of the funniest Peanuts shows ever!
Don’t assume this wasn’t a good story! I may be being a little harsh on it, but that’s only because this property has been part of our national pop culture for 65 years, and we all probably feel a little overly protective of it. The writing in general (episodic as it might be) was very good, and other than some character motivations, was Peanuts-worthy. For fans, there are a lot of little callbacks to the TV shows and comic strips that will bring a smile to your face. If you were worried they were going to ruin the movie by having the characters be too “edgy” or “modern” you can rest easy. While there was no way a studio making this film in the 21st century would ever be completely faithful to the original, this is probably as good as it gets. There is no out of place slang, or technology, or references. Like the TV specials before it, it has a timeless quality that serves it well. Excepting the new animation techniques used to create it, the film fits in with all that came before it.
Besides story, the next issue fans probably worried most about was the animation. There are just some cartoons that feel like they should not go CG and Peanuts had to be at the top of that list. But I’m very happy to say that Blue Sky Studios probably out did everyone’s expectations. The key seems to be subtlety. These don’t look like toys come to life and they don’t look photorealistic. They’ve taken the original characters and given them just a bit of pop, while staying true to flatter facial animation. They’ve also included a lot of little hand drawn looking touches like the lines following Woodstock, the hearts above Sally’s head, and the squiggles of frustration Charlie Brown gets. The soft, almost pastel colored backgrounds also offer a subdued setting for the characters. Overall, I can’t imagine any better implementation than this.
Music has always been a big part of the Peanuts on screen, and this outing is no different. Fans will be pleased to hear a lot of familiar songs. And Christophe Beck’s score, while not at all trying to match the Vince Guaraldi style, is entirely suitable to the brand. Another worry that ended up being for nothing is the inclusion of pop songs. They are few, not too in your face, and fit pretty well.
Maybe the nicest surprise for me, because it was something I hadn’t even thought about, was the voice acting. Like the specials and previous films, kids were enlisted to play the parts. And each and every one of them was perfectly cast! Special recognition to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews who did the “voice” of the adults.
I admit it: this review has been a bit wishy-washy! That’s because what The Peanuts Movie is is both: a faithful adaptation with a modern sensibility. Yes, I was tough on film. But the movie as a whole exceeded my expectations. While the filmmakers definitely have a 2015 world-view, they are obviously fans of the source material and were good stewards of the Peanuts brand. There’s no question kids are going to love it. And we adults will find that happiness is a nostalgic movie that is close enough to our childhood memories.
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?