Last night after work I went to see The Peanuts Movie, the new CGI animated film based on Charles Schulz’s characters. I had tracked this movie pretty carefully over the last year and a half, from the first trailer to the second, and last month I even read the kids novelization.
The Peanuts Movie is the second Peanuts film I’ve seen in the theater; I have vague memories of seeing Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown with my dad, my brother, and maybe my sister when we lived in Chicago in the late 70s. This movie, I had the option of seeing it in 3-D, and I opted for the 2-D showing.
The film was preceded by an Ice Age short. I’ve never seen any of the Ice Age films, so I’m not familiar with the characters. One of the characters finds his way into a UFO that’s been buried in the ice, accidentally takes off into space, promptly blows up several planets by accident (which rains debris down on the Earth, presumably causing an extinction event), and probably ends up suffocating in space. Let’s just say it didn’t go over well. I didn’t find it funny and, judging by the utter silence of the theater, no one in my audience did, either.
As for The Peanuts Movie, that had a better audience reaction. The story, as I’ve described it in the past from the trailers and the novelization, is basically the secret origin of Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl. Charlie Brown had a rough day — the Kite-Eating Tree has destroyed his latest kite, and Charlie Brown’s attempt to fly the kite wrecked his friends’ hockey game — and, feeling particularly low, Charlie Brown sees that someone new is moving into the neighborhood. He thinks this is a good chance for a fresh start with a possible new friend, someone who doesn’t know him as a wishy-washy loser, and what follows is a series of comic misadventures where Charlie Brown tries to talk to or impress the Little Red-Haired Girl, only to have it blow up in his face in embarrassing and public ways.
In the side plot, Snoopy discovers an old typewriter and decides to become the Great American Writer For his magnum opus, inspired in part by Charlie Brown’s pratfalls where the Little Red-Haired Girl is concerned, he embarks on a novel about the World War I Flying Ace and his love of the French poodle aviatrix, Fifi. But a danger lurks in the skies — the Red Baron! — and the World War I Flying Ace will face many dangers when he attempts to rescue Fifi from a German aerodrome and its mighty Zeppelin.
The Peanuts Movie did pretty much everything right, I thought. The story has a nice momentum and pace; scenes don’t drag on and linger past their punchlines. There were issues I had with the story from the kid’s novelization — the film’s characters weren’t in the same grade in the comic strip, let alone attend the same school; and the ending didn’t feel appropriately Schulzian — but, in the context of the film, they worked. If you want to show all of the familiar Peanuts characters, putting them in the same classroom is an easy way of accomplishing that. If Charlie Brown’s goal throughout the film has been to talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl, a goal he has consistently failed at, then he’s probably going to talk to her at the end. The ending, no matter how very un-Schulz-ian it was, worked for me and left me with a dopey grin, feeling upbeat.
The film is, as previous paragraphs suggest, Charlie Brown and Snoopy-centric, and maybe the film could have done more with the Peanuts ensemble, but most all of the major Peanuts characters at least had a moment. Linus has moments with his blanket and moments where he’s the Wise Old Sage, Lucy dispenses advice and berates Charlie Brown at every opportunity, Peppermint Patty has flirty moments with “Chuck, you old sly dog,” and imposes on him for baked goods, Schroeder has his toy piano and his Beethoven bust, and so on. Basically, the ensemble gets moments or dialogue that will be callbacks from familiar moments from the major holiday animated specials (A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown). Reading the kids novelization in advance didn’t spoil the movie for me in any appreciable way. Some elements of the film weren’t present in the novelization, such as part of Snoopy’s plot which relied on visual gags that wouldn’t translate well to the printed page.
The CGI animation worked very well. The art models captured the look and style of Schulz’s later (1980s-ish) artwork in the 3-D CGI style, and the film looked like the comic strip come to life. It seemed to me that even the framing of the shots was set up to mimic the perspectives that Schulz would have used in the comic strip. Also, for a long-time fan, there are some nice visual puns; at the dance, for instance, there are kids doing the strange dance moves from A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Speaking of A Charlie Brown Christmas, 5, one of the dancers, is in the film — he’s in Charlie Brown’s class — but his sisters 3 and 4 don’t seem to be.)
The film has two mid-credits scenes — one a gag that wouldn’t have fit anywhere else, one with Snoopy’s family. After the credits (where are a lovely homage to the history of Peanuts), there is a post-credits sting. You honestly don’t need to stay for it; it closes off a recurring gag, that’s all.
There was one thing I really wanted from the film, and I didn’t realize I wanted it until after the film was finished:
To be fair, though, Schulz wasn’t a fan of The Royal Guardsmen Snoopy songs, the most famous of which is “Snoopy’s Christmas.” But I thought it would have been nice to hear a modern band take a crack at it. As for the film’s music, it’s a combination of Vince Guaraldi’s originals (the film opens with “Skating,” for instance), modern renditions by David Benoit, and a lovely orchestral score by composer Christophe Beck. There are two pop songs — Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancin'” and Flo Rida’s “That’s What I Like,” and they were pretty inoffensive. No signs of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
All in all, I liked The Peanuts Movie. It was funny and it was touching and it was nice. For me, it was filled with nostalgia moments, but those moments didn’t overwhelm the film’s story. The film manages to be reverential without ever becoming inaccessible. Think of those nostalgic moments as Easter Eggs to the audience, reminders that this film may look different and feel modern, but its heart is absolutely in the right place. And, for the young audience who doesn’t really know Peanuts that well, I think they will really like this. Charlie Brown is like all of us — he tries hard, he cares, he falls short, he doesn’t see himself in the positive light that others see him, and he doesn’t give up. That’s a good message to take away from The Peanuts Movie.
If I were to rank this among the first four Peanuts films, I’d put this second, after Snoopy Come Home and above A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
I hope they make another, though The Hollywood Reporter says it’s not likely. (The article also answers what happened to the follow-up animated special to Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, focused on Snoopy and the Red Baron; this film started from that animated specials script.) If the Schulz estate changes their minds, if they do make another Peanuts film, maybe next time, something with more of an ensemble flavor? Maybe something about Charlie Brown and his baseball team? That would be a lot of fun.