Due to its vignette pacing, the 2015 “The Peanuts Movie” can feel like a series of fully-rendered animation tests planted into a plot.
I happened to view it after the release of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and this reminded me this latest story of Charlie Brown, Charles Schultz’s iconic lovable loser comic strip character, came out on a particular year where nostalgia played safely could have good yet visibly risk-averse results.
Although there was nary a moment I laughed aloud, there were plenty of chuckle-worthiness and snips of Captain-Obvious monologuey but still profound child introspection. This was typically how I viewed the television specials, which always took pride in its charming corniness for better or worse.
When the film opens, it acts as an in media res, an illusion of continuation from the previous Charlie Brown television media, even if the story is clearly a stand-alone reboot with the familiar ingredients. Charlie “Chuck” Brown wakes up to yet another day, a possible happier tomorrow than yesterday, and to another kite getting swallowed by the Kite-Eating Tree. Later, the infamous Little Red-Haired Girl has moved into Chuck’s neighborhood and Chuck gets sold into the idea that being a conventional winner would mean winning her heart. The true answers of what truly makes a winner are glaringly obvious, but haven’t we all shared Chuck’s delusion when we were his age?
Mischievous beagle Snoopy and Charlie still have their chemistry. Old jokes and concepts are rehashed, but the film feels overall fresh in emotion, even if they are old familiar elements just with brighter colors.
Fans sighed in relief upon the glimpse of the teaser and its animation technique. The movie is predominantly a stylized CGI, where the audience can tell there’s CGI dimensionality, but it still retains the comic 2-D “flatness.” The models look traced from Melendez’s sketchiness: the dotted eyes and the curl of hair. The compromise works splendidly to treat it as a visual playground of sight gags and quick-paced comedy, amid bits of clunkiness to CGI trying to imitate the low-budget animation of the television specials. Minuscule sight gags are allowed–my personal favorite involves a background character being too devoted to acting as a mime. Even the occasional pop music is fleetingly gimmicky rather than annoyingly overdone. Overall, the technique of CGI is an example of how well-done updates appreciate old material rather than bastardize it. There are acceptable breaks: Red-Haired Girl is seen in the flesh rather than entirely obscured.
The film opens on a meta-tribute: on pencil circles of snow before its fades into its CGI environment. The old scribble hand-drawn graphics would creep on-screen, like visible onomatopoeia sound effect (Bang!), the popping hearts above Sally’s head when she pines for Linus, or a brief imagination spot where Charlie recounts past mishaps– he dreams of starting “with a clean slate,” as cartoon fans would get the meta-reference of animation evolution. We might only catch a few frames of a fleeting hand-drawn scribble, but it’s a treat because the smallness manages to capture our attention.
The movie has a pitch perfect child actor cast, successors of the old voice actors, with the nice addition of archival recordings of the late Bill Melendez of the previous Charlie Brown cartoons for the squeakidy Snoopy and Woodstock. Charlie (Noah Schnapp) is a bona fide good-natured determinator even if fate forces setbacks.
Recall Snoopy’s iconic typewriting hobby in the comics and shorts? There’s a resemblance of a cute origin story designed in this rendition. The plot segueways into imagine spot chapters of Snoopy’s writing, as he flies on his doghouse to defeat the Red Baron and save his beloved poodle (with a casting gag of Kristen Chenoweth who played Sally Brown on Broadway), often cleverly inspired by Snoopy witnessing dramatic turns in his owner’s life. The animation expands its limits to make Snoopy’s story realm epic yet anchored to its “2-D” framing–note, we never see the bottom of Snoopy’s flying doghouse.
In a time period of CGIed Alvin & The Chipmunks and Smurfs reboots, this is a work made with conscientious love and reverence for its source material, so this is something I wished I loved rather than liked. It’s a tad oversatutated with saccharine, but it is backed up with sincere charm. It’s a bit of a letdown that it went for a too crowd-pleasing conclusion. I am not suggesting a downer ending would be the remedy, but rather, a more pleasant ending that played enigmatically rather than didactically. The ending here panders with too clear answers in a too far deviation from the source material where questions are met with uncertainty.
Having been crafted under the watchful eye of the Schultz’s descendants (credited as among producers and writer), the film is both a preservationist and evolutionary effort, one that falls into the category of “good, not great films,” but its humble goals pays off.
Chuck and the Peanuts gang never quite grew up, their youth always in a stasis in the comic book timeline logic. Instead, we grew up with them because we saw our youth preserved in them. The characters lived in this liminal world between childhood and growth where they can only philosophize about their stasis, a blurry future, and occasional lesson. There’s a priceless quote by Sally about feeling old even when the school days all come to an end.
Believe it or not, the richness of the “hybrid” animation made me desire more. Although the Schultz estate is rightfully cautious about allowing another theatrical release, I hope that this is only the entrance of future Blue Skies’ Charlie Brown films. The Peanut Movie proves that the Charlie Brown, especially when done right, deserves to continue into our growing lives.