[Review] - The Peanuts Movie

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
I'll admit, I was worried. When the trailers for the Peanuts Movie first started to appear, they seemed filled with the same sort of extraneous and purposeless action that liter modern animated films, so as to give the animators an opportunity to wank off some scenery porn and give the tissue paper plot a break. These trailers were also backed by some Top 40 hit, the kind of bland, vapid Pollyanna positive message wrapped in a toe-tapping tune that you immediately forget as soon as it stops playing and thus represents the bulk of the modern musical culture. In short, I was worried that the Peanuts Movie was going to be like 97.6% of all animated movies to be released in this day and age. Little more than fodder for the minivan head-rest mounted DVD, intended to keep kids distracted until the player burns out, and with all the cultural staying power of a shagged-out gnat.

I was wrong. Thank gods I was wrong. The Peanuts Movie is a delight, from beginning to end. It is the perfect encapsulation of the Peanuts thematic brand, and the antithesis of the shallow, hollow modern animated environment, made all the remarkable considering it comes from BlueSky, makers of the increasingly irrelevant Ice Age movies. The Peanuts hits all the right notes. It grazes the bubbling vat of nostalgia without ever feeling the need to wade in up to it's neck. It is sincere and earnest, and never once talks down to its audience. This isn't a film meant for kids, which adults will enjoy; nor is it a film for adults dressed up with kiddish delight. This is the very definition of a family film, a film that anyone with an ounce of joy in the hearts can fall in love with. It lacks the emotional weight and destructive power of, say, Toy Story 3, and it's message is unencumbered by subtly, but sometimes all you need is for a good thing to be good. And that is what The Peanuts are.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers which are cold and snowy.

The only film I can think of to rightful compare The Peanuts to is the original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, from Disney. Because, like Pooh, the Peanuts isn't so much a film as it is a series of vignettes held together by a loose theme, and an assorted cast of characters build on archetypes that provide the audience with expected and anticipated reactions on the way to a moral. And understand, comparing it to Pooh is a high compliment. That film is irreproachable. The Peanuts may not be quite to that level, but of all the possible ways for this film to have went, this is the best of them. Clearly, the stewardship of director Steve Martino, writers Craig and Bryan Schulz, and Cornelius Uliano and the production of wunderkind Paul Feig was exactly what was needed to avoid the pratfalls of a modern imagining of Charles Schulz' world.

No attempt has been made to modernize, to update, or to otherwise make relevant The Peanuts from a modern perspective. And the reason is simple: it doesn't need to be. Charlie Brown and company are modern, in that they are timeless. The stylistic choices, like having Chuck get wrapped up in a phone cord most of the under-ten audience will never have seen, are immaterial compared to the timeless condition of the character. Charlie Brown is a schmuck. Lucy is an egotistical bully. Linus is a philosopher. Sally is an opportunist. Snoopy is a trickster. Woodstock is stalwart. These aren't concepts that need superficial updating. In fact, seeing Linus walking around with a smart phone would seem far more ingenuous than having them walk around a pseudo-sixties aesthetic. So, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang are as they always have been, and that's the only way they ever can be.

But stepping beyond that, this is an inspired production, an exemplar of craft from every perspective. the voice acting, done entirely by age appropriate kids, is the best the Peanuts have seen since the Great Pumpkin. There isn't a single voice that sounds off. Each sticks the perfect level of trepidation, audacity, and self assurance. None sound too old or too confident. They sound like kids. And more than that, they sound like who they are meant to be. Charlie Brown sounds like Charlie Brown, despite the fact that Charlie Brown, being a comic strip character, sounds like nothing. It is a rare perfection in voice talent that one usually has to look to the Batman Animated Series to find. And all respect to the producers, they resisted the urge to fill the cast with Big Names and stunt casting. Bill Melendez provides Snoopy and Woodstock through archives, Trombone Shorty gives inarticulate life to the adults, and Kristin Chenoweth breathes unspoken life into a love interest, and that is as close as it gets to playing the name game.

The real star of the picture though, is the animation. The Peanuts is not screaming out to be rendered in startling 3-D, seeing the full blooming curve of Chuck's bald head. And so they settled on a style that Feig referred to as 2.5-D. The film is digitally created, but the characters all exist on their linear orientations, given only a minor sense of depth by their surroundings. But what sells the entire enterprise as a bold and unquestionable achievement is how the animators used hand-drawn animation to fill in the details. The eyes, the eye brows, dancing hearts and exclamation marks, Pig-Pen's dust cloud are all the product of unassuming pencil scratches. In fact, when Charlie Brown dives into his imagination, it is rendered in Schulz comic strips. And it is amazing how much this detail breathes life into these characters. The completely abandonment of the craft in favour of digital was a shortsighted business decision that swept the industry, but this film should serve as a reminder of the power of the medium in it's most intimate form.

As for the film itself, it's a hero's journey, as Charlie Brown spends the winter attempting to impress the Little Red Headed Girl, something all us Charlie Browns out there have spent our lives sympathizing with. As such, the film movies from task to task, following Chuck on his misadventures, as he strives to do the right ting and because he's Charlie Brown, to have the universe throw it back at him. The sharp edges of Schulz' pessimism have been filled down slightly, replaced by the larger message of, sometimes trying to be better than yourself is what leads you to disaster. Sometime, being yourself, if if yourself is just Charlie Brown, is the best that you can be. And sometimes, even being Charlie Brown is good enough. It's a bold statement in the modern self-help era, to give kids a movie that teaches them that they don't have to be special, that sometimes it's alright just to be OK. It's also a message that allows the writers to maintain the craptacular way the universe and his friends treat Charlie Brown without it seemingly like abuse. In fact, The Peanuts might be the only movie capable of getting away with the message that a little bullying is good in life, as it makes you stronger. Say that out loud on Twitter, and you'd be publicly tarred and featured.

The film also manages to avoid making Snoopy the main character. This is 100% Charlie Brown's film. Yes, the meatiest subplot is Snoopy's World War One Flying Ace imagination sequences, where he hunts the Red Barron down in order to save his lady love (also allowing the movie to feature a dirigible attack sequence without it feeling out of place). But Snoopy is just a factor in Charlie's life, sometimes a boon, sometimes a fault. And that, more than anything, is what we can take away form the film. That the people and things we keep close to us can be our greatest strength, but also be the thing that steals all our cupcakes. Our friends, our family, our loved ones, are both the angels of our better nature, and the devils of our worst. They raise us up, and pull away the football in equal measure.

And you have to give the writers credit, they didn't take the easy way out of the script. This film could have just as easily become A Charlie Brown For All Seasons, a bland big screen adaptation of the best loved specials from the past. They could have wrung the nostalgia bell for every tune, and went home with money in their pockets for very little trouble. But while the Great Pumpkin and Christmas Time get shout-outs, and Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy is a constant refrain in the soundtrack, the film is largely original. It takes the best aspects of Schulz' comics and specials, and distills them down into a simple, straightforward, and immeasurable true script. Perhaps the best way to put it is, out of all the Charlie Browns in the world, this film is the Charlie Browniest. In the very best way possible.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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