Charles Schulz announced his retirement early in the year 2000, and the final Peanuts comic strip was published at just about the same time as his death. In the time since, and even for several years beforehand, there haven’t been any notable films or TV shows about Charlie Brown and his friends. Yet in spite of that, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” remains an immortal holiday classic, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is still a perennial musical theatre favorite, and old Peanuts strips have been running continuously in newspapers across the country.
So here we are with The Peanuts Movie, the first original wide release to feature the Peanuts gang in several decades. Yet it doesn’t seem right to say that these characters are back, or that they’re being introduced to a new generation, because it feels like they never left. Charlie Brown and his friends have always been hanging out somewhere in the background of pop culture, to the point where we simply take their presence for granted.
With that in mind, there’s the very real question of why Hollywood had to make anything new if the Peanuts were getting along just fine as is. Moreover, a huge part of why the Peanuts work so well is because these are mere children hailing from a more innocent time. Creating something new in a way that maintains that old-fashioned flavor is a dicey proposition, especially in these jaded times. Audiences have become so tired of Hollywood business as usual that it would take a shit-ton of credibility to assure audiences that this wouldn’t be just another cash-grab made to defile something that so many of us hold dear.
Enter Craig and Bryan Schulz, respectively the son and grandson of Charles M. Schulz himself. These two co-wrote the film alongside debut screenwriter Cornelius Uliano. The three of them also co-produced the movie alongside Paul Feig, of all people, who was presumably a crucial part of running studio counter-interference. Then the Schulzes went and hand-picked director Steve Martino, specifically because he showed such love and fidelity to Dr. Seuss’ source material while adapting Horton Hears a Who!
As if that wouldn’t be enough proof that the folks behind this movie meant business, they made a film that was G-rated. That is hugely significant, because nobody EVER makes G-rated movies anymore, unless they were meant to go straight to DVD. For decades, conventional Hollywood wisdom (and I use that term indiscreetly) has dictated that “G-rated” means “adults steer clear,” and “PG-rated” means “parents can have a good time, too!” Yet in this incredibly rare case, someone behind the scenes had the good sense to recognize that if it’s not G-rated, it ain’t Peanuts. It doesn’t matter whether the film is PG or R, nothing but a clean G rating would be enough to satisfy the filmgoers who grew up with these characters (ie: everyone).
Put simply, every last one of the filmmakers made it perfectly clear that they were swinging for the fences. This movie was all about staying true to the Peanuts gang while giving the audience a whole new set of reasons to fall in love with them all over again. And on those terms, while the film is hardly perfect, it absolutely succeeds.
To start with, the animation is nothing short of inspired. I love how the filmmakers never even tried to use CGI in a way that looked realistic. The character designs are all built around the same facial designs, expressions, proportions, and body language that we’ve already seen in so many Charlie Brown cartoons and comics. The characters and sets are all about smooth curves and soft colors, which makes for visuals that are very pleasant to look at. Moreover, Martino shows remarkable skill at knowing when to exaggerate movements and expressions for comedic effect, and when to rein it back for the more heartfelt moments.
It should also be mentioned that this movie very notably takes place in the same non-specific time and place of the source material. It’s all corded rotary-dial phones and typewriters, without even a single mention of cell phones or computers. There are no “hip” catchphrases or references doomed to be obsolete within the next few years, all the humor is clean as the proverbial whistle, and there isn’t a single overproduced Top 40 song to be heard. Although the famously retro-minded Meghan Trainor does contribute what may be the best song she will ever put on record, and I say that as someone who HATES her music.
The voice cast is uniformly outstanding. We’ve got New Orleans jazz player Trombone Shorty contributing the “wah-wah” adult voices, and the late Bill Melendez reprises Snoopy and Woodstock by way of recycled voice recordings. Rounding out the adult cast is Kristin Chenoweth, of all people, contributing voice effects for Fifi, Snoopy’s imaginary love interest through the Red Baron storyline. It’s interesting to note that even though Fifi is technically a damsel in distress, she still proves herself at times to be a worthy equal for Snoopy’s Flying Ace. That more proactive breed of love interest is relatively new in the history of cinema, and this was a neat way of sneaking that idea in.
Aside from those three exceptions, the voice cast is comprised entirely of young children who are varying degrees of unknown. And they are all phenomenal. Every single actor is perfectly cast, with voices that perfectly match what you’d expect the characters to sound like, and their line deliveries are all surprisingly good. No complaints at all.
As for the plot, it’s basically a hodgepodge of familiar Peanuts images and running gags. You’ve got Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite, you’ve got Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound, Snoopy is writing a new Red Baron saga from the typewriter atop his doghouse, Charlie Brown and Linus talk with each other at that wall they lean on, Lucy is charging five cents for bad psychiatric advice, and so forth. They even shoehorn in a scene with Lucy and the football for a mid-credits bonus.
There is some attempt at a plot, as all of this is built around Charlie Brown’s efforts to win the affection of the Cute Little Red-Haired Girl who just moved in across the street. Though more broadly, it’s about a series of attempts for Charlie Brown to actually succeed at something and prove that he’s not just a nobody. And on a few notable occasions, there are times when he briefly appears to come out on top. But then the movie turns things around and forces Charlie Brown to choose whether he’ll put his own success before anyone else’s, or whether he’ll accept a victory that didn’t come honestly.
It gets repetitive and predictable, because we all know exactly what’s going to happen. We know that Charlie Brown will never give up and he’ll always do the right thing, no matter how many times it blows up in his face. That’s what he is and it’s what he does. Yet through Charlie Brown, the movie strongly makes the impassioned point that it’s better to be a good person than a great one. After all, no matter how many times Charlie Brown is said to be a loser, the fact remains that he still has a ton of friends who’ll cheer him on because they like him so much.
Everyone loves a good-hearted person and we all want to see good people succeed, however long it may take. And that goes for Lucy as well, no matter how much she may hate to admit it.
Now we move on to the nitpicks. To start with, the movie relied too heavily on callbacks. I get that references come with the territory, but lifting whole jokes and lines from previous works was going a step too far, especially when the filmmakers do it so often. I should also add that the visuals were very specifically crafted with 3D in mind, so your enjoyment of the film will depend heavily on how well you can tolerate random crap flying toward the screen (particularly during the Red Baron dogfights).
But by far the biggest issue is the plot structure. Leaving aside the Red Baron storyline, which may as well be its own entirely different movie, Charlie Brown’s story is very episodic in nature. Which means that the plot can get very repetitive, and a lot of things can fall through the cracks between segments. A prominent example concerns a book report that Charlie Brown spends an entire weekend on, and the storyline is left maddeningly unresolved.
(Side note: To be fair, reading “War and Peace” from cover to cover and writing a thousand-word book report on that tome in the space of a single afternoon would be a hefty accomplishment for most adults, never mind a grade-school boy. Just saying.)
Last but not least, pretty much the entire story takes place in a few winter weeks, before a sudden time jump takes us straight to the end of the school year. Which means that we skip right over five or six months, with no idea of what happened in that time. That’s some pretty bad storytelling, not to mention terrible pacing.
(Side note: I suppose I should mention the loud and annoying short film preceding the feature, titled “Cosmic Scrat-astrophe.” Does anyone still care about that stupid goddamn squirrel at this point? Is the Ice Age franchise still a thing?)
Overall, even with the flawed plotting and the over-reliance on jokes from earlier Peanuts works, I thought The Peanuts Movie was fantastic. Through top-notch animation, superlative voice work, and incredible passion, the filmmakers do a phenomenal job of bringing these characters to the screen and reminding us why they’ve endured for so long. What’s more, the filmmakers were smart enough to focus on Charlie Brown’s unyielding persistence and integrity, which highlights a strong and positive moral that’s only been subtext until now.
I have absolutely no problem giving this a full recommendation. Go see it, bring the kids, and have a great time.