Silver Screen: The Peanuts Movie ****1/2
Perhaps no beloved children’s entertainment is less-suited to slick modernization than Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. The gentle, slightly morose comic-strip classic is defined by the elegant austerity of Schulz’s masterful cartooning and the timeless simplicity of its subject matter. Schulz managed to explore existential angst, crises of faith, and the blessed escape of fantasy all within the sparest constructs: some children play baseball, ice skate, fly kites, and congregate at a homemade psychiatric clinic.
Woe to the calculating hack who imagines an updated Peanuts: Charlie Brown’s barren Facebook friends list, Lucy reformed by anti-bullying campaigns, Sally as a Belieber, Linus’s security iPad.
Well you’re in luck, Charlie Brown, because the delightful new computer-animated Peanuts Movie is gloriously low-fi. Director Steve Martino, working from a script by Schulz’s son Craig, among others, preserves the aching innocence of the newspaper strip and classic cartoon specials.
Schulz’s cartoon world is like Snoopy’s doghouse: an impossibly expansive universe contained within a tiny space. The Peanuts Movie is something of a greatest-hits collection, distilling many of the classic tropes and themes of the strip and fashioning them into a longer, if somewhat episodic story.
The film pulls the football out from under modern-animation conventions right away. Whereas kids’ movies have become increasingly elaborate and spectacle-driven with the advent of computer animation and 3D technology, The Peanuts Movie insists on taking it slow. For the first fifteen minutes of the movie, Charlie Brown fails to fly a kite while the other kids ice skate. Then they head off to school, where a determined Snoopy refuses to be denied access.
The biggest plot twist is the arrival of the Little Red-haired Girl, Charlie Brown’s Helen of Troy/Erydice/Remedios. The new kid in school causes much excitement, especially for our beleaguered hero, who attempts to impress her by winning a talent show, learning to dance, and writing the greatest book report of all time.
Against the backdrop of this star-crossed love story, Charlie Brown’s little sister pines for his pal Linus, Peppermint Patty skirts academic disaster, and Snoopy wages imaginary war against his aerial nemesis, the Red Baron.
The quality of the computer animation here is key. Director Steve Martino favors a clean, rudimentary design reminiscent of stop-motion animation, one that nicely splits the difference between Schulz’s clean linework and the dominant Pixar style of the last two decades.
In a stroke of brilliance, Martino, along with his screenwriters and animators, have found a way to use modern moviemaking techniques while still harking back to the old-fashioned look of the classic Peanuts holiday specials. When Snoopy gets tangled up in his fantasies of being a World War I flying ace, the backgrounds deepen and grow more defined, and the camera swoops and dives with rollercoaster glee. In Charlie Brown’s imagined scenarios, however, the gang is reduced to the familiar black-and-white squiggly lines. It’s a perfect balance.
Even the voiceover work is restrained. The Peanuts crew is given voices by actual children, not the celebrities de jour. The closest thing the production boasts to famous cameos is the familiar muted-horn-voice of the adults, played by New Orleans jazzmaster Trombone Shorty. Kristin Chenoweth sneaks in a few barks as a saucy poodle tempting Snoopy, who is played, along with his buddy Woodstock, by Bill Melendez, whose tenure stretches all the way back to 1966’s Charlie Brown’s All Stars! special.
So The Peanuts Movie is a treat for nostalgists and hard-hearted thirtysomething movie reviewers. That’s all well and good, but does this pervasively anachronistic film appeal to today’s whippersnapper set?
Having no children of my own, or much use for anyone else’s, I felt unqualified to even make a wild guess as to whether today’s kids could tolerate Peanuts’ deliberate pacing and subdued humor. I posed the question to my less-child-averse friends and received some especially heartening replies. The sentiment among my pals’ kids was unanimously positive— a few parents were surprised to find their tots patiently sitting through this when they had been less able to focus on more frenetic, shiny entertainments of the day.
Even more interesting, a friend who teaches at a school for autistic children said several of her students connected strongly to Charlie Brown’s plight. One such parent described weeping at the sight of his seven-year-old daughter having such a clear emotional reaction to the characters onscreen. So Peanuts not only still resonates with kids today, but is perhaps uniquely suited to speak to those young ones who feel, for whatever reason, isolated in modern life.
That’s a testament to Schulz’s ability to tap into ideas and emotions that transcend age and time, to speak to some immutable part of our humanity. Bravo to him, and to the filmmakers who had the wisdom to recognize this, and to leave well enough alone.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.