The Peanuts Movie
Directed by Steve Martino
Starring: Noah Schnapp,
Bill Melendez, Hadley Belle Miller
1 hr. 28 min.
Second-gen revivals can be a dicey proposition. The Gumby and Pokey property, under the command of late creator Art Clokey’s son, Joe, has yet to take off. Jay Ward no doubt rolled in his grave when The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right and George of the Jungle live-action features were released in the late ’90s/early aughts. And there’s a good reason why you’ve probably never heard of the 2004 animated film Felix the Cat Saves Christmas.
Lately, though, a few of these gambles have worked, both commercially and creatively. While the 2014 sequel Muppets’ Most Wanted tanked, and the current ABC show is struggling, Jason Segel’s 2011 passion project The Muppets deftly approximated the humor of sorely missed Muppets’ creator Jim Henson. Those Alvin and the Chipmunks movies may annoy you, but truth be told, they generate so much bank, a third one is arriving this December.
Add to the list of successful resurrections The Peanuts Movie, a nice tribute to the oeuvre of the late Charles M. Schulz, author of the most successful comic strip ever created. On Saturday, the Brooks Institute, celebrating its 70th anniversary, held a special screening of the new Steve Martino-helmed animated feature at Century 10 Downtown theaters, where Brooks Institute President Edward Clift informed an eager crowd that The Peanuts Movie was co-written (with the cartoonist’s son, Craig Schulz) by two Brooks alums: Cornelius Uliano and Bryan Schulz, the Peanuts creator’s grandson. The film’s creators have a firm hand on the property, largely winning the battle between preserving the charm of old-school Peanuts and making obligatory new-school moves.
Almost episodic (in the tradition of Peanuts specials of years past), the movie’s scenes hang like pearls on a thin story thread that accelerates when the Little Red-Haired Girl moves in next door to Charlie Brown, instantly becoming the object of his romantic obsession, the source of his angst and insecurities, and the motivator for the uber-loser’s striving to succeed.
Good news for the nostalgic: All the Peanuts tropes are here. The movie opens with some Vince Guaraldi Trio music from the 1965 Christmas special and wastes no time getting to that familiar piano-driven main theme as Charlie fouls up a kite flight. The unseen adults talk in that muffled nonverbal tone. Peppermint Patty mistakes Chuck’s intent with a “You sly dog!” Lucy still sets up her psychiatric shop, still hates Charlie. Joe Cool appears. Snoopy, of course, is the usual showoff; a master of all, contrasting Charlie’s master of none.
Understandably, the moviemakers feel the pressure to at once honor Charles Schulz’s idiosyncratic achievement and update it for children roughly Charlie Brown’s age in 2015. So the most obvious move is bringing Peanuts into the digital age. The Peanuts Movie smacks of After Effects — everything is more 3-D, more rounded and epic. There are times when you feel as if you’re watching those old specials as filtered through a Viewmaster. Sometimes it works: The night-lit WWI Flying Ace sequences are evocative and expansive. But an allusion to that famous goony Christmas special dance sequence remains just that: an allusion and not as charming or well-staged.
Ironically, the world within Peanuts 2.0 is old-fashioned with no hint of the digital age. Snoopy still pecks out his novel on a typewriter . . . the kids read the school paper. (An actual print newspaper!) There are nice devices throughout that throw back to those analog days: flashback and fantasy thought bubbles in which Schulz-esque doodles appear. The child actors’ voices are spot-on. The soundtrack’s few contemporary pop songs (Meghan Trainor, Flo Rida), however, are generic and jarring, clashing with the classic Peanuts aesthetic.
Despite its deal with the digital devil, The Peanuts Movie succeeds in its prime mission: transmitting the DNA of Charles Schulz’s creations to a new generation of real-life peanuts; and, commercially, that appears to be paying off.
The Peanuts Movie is quality product. Ultimately, it’s good enough and loyal enough to the Schulz universe to advance the brand into the 21st century, preserving the integrity of the Peanuts tradition, even as it casts one eye on modernity.