When we live in an age when everything, no matter how pure the intent of the creator, is simply IP to be farmed, it is right to be suspicious of a “Peanuts” movie. After all, Charlie Brown and the rest of the characters created by Charles Schulz have been huge business for decades, and it makes sense that they would put something together if for no other reason than to keep the characters active in pop culture.
Thankfully, it appears that the people behind “The Peanuts Movie” take the legacy of these characters very seriously, and the result is a gentle, charming movie that seems far less frantic than much of what is created for young audiences these days. Blue Sky, one of the two major producers of CG animated films for Fox, has produced ten feature films now, and while the majority of their efforts have been originals, it was clear from “Horton Hears A Who” that when they adapt someone else's property, they try to do so from a position of authenticity and respect.
One of the things that makes “Peanuts” such a broad target is all the different versions there have been. Even in our editorial meetings at HitFix, as we talk about the films or the specials that we think of when “Peanuts” is mentioned, we all have our own take on what that means. For me, the old school TV specials and the first few movies were the defining version. Louis Virtel told me he always thinks of “Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown!” first. My kids have been exposed to some of the specials, but Toshi took it upon himself to read the Fantagraphics collections of all of the strips that I have on my shelves. And to any of those people, I would say, “You'll recognize the 'Peanuts' you love in this movie, and you'll be happy.” That could not have been an easy task, so for that alone, Blue Sky and Fox deserve some accolades.
One of the most interesting choices they made in approaching the movie was how to design the characters. They are 3D CG objects, but the faces are “drawn” onto the heads in a way that always feels like there's a physical brush stroke, a pencil mark. I assume the entire thing is CG, but it connects the characters to the long hand-made tradition that started with the comic strip itself. It's a strong stylistic decision, and it makes sure the characters feel like the characters we already know. Steve Martino, working from a script by Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz, and Cornelius Uliano, touches on any number of familiar jokes and scenes and set-ups, with a number of references to the long history of the characters. Snoopy spends most of the movie working on a book on his newly-discovered typewriter, the story of a flying ace and his battle against the infamous Red Baron. Sally's got her crush on her sweet baboo, Linus, who nurses his faith in the the Great Pumpkin. Lucy gives advice at her sidewalk psychiatric stand while making passes as Schroeder every chance she gets. Peppermint Patty and her assistant Marcie both play their familiar roles as well, with Charlie Brown at the center of everything, constantly put upon, constantly taking one on the chin. If this is going to be true to the original strip that Schulz created, then Charlie Brown has got to be suffering, a kid who can't catch a break.
What surprised me was the way they took a quiet approach to finding something else to say about Charlie Brown. I was worried that this was going to be a film where they had to turn him into something he wasn't just to tick some demographic checklist, and instead, the film makes some very strong and interesting points about what is heroic when you're just a kid trying to define yourself. In this case, there's a new kid in school, the Little Red-Haired Girl, and Charlie Brown is determined to reinvent himself in a way that will win this girl's attention and approval. This being Charlie Brown, things are not that easy, but I thought the way they eventually bring it together was unexpectedly honest. At this point, these characters have been playing the same beats for so long that it is genuinely surprising to see them do something new that doesn't feel like a violation of the characters, but rather a natural extension of what we already know about them.
The cast of young voice actors all seem appropriately chosen, and it's interesting to hear how they've gone out of their way to find kids who naturally sound like the voices that have been connected to the characters for over 40 years now. One of the reasons I don't ever want a “Calvin & Hobbes” adaptation to happen is because I don't want to hear anyone else's take on how Hobbes should sound, but with these characters, they've had the same voices for so long now that it's kind of like a magic trick. It's a cast of real kids here, but they sound like the “real” Charlie Brown, the “real” Lucy, the “real” Linus.
Frequently very funny, undeniably aimed at younger audiences, and true to the source material, “The Peanuts Movie” is too mild-mannered to win over brand new audiences, but it's going to please people who were already fond of the underlying property, and it should be a big nostalgia-driven hit for the studio.