The late Charles M. Schulz’s beloved Peanuts comic strip has spawned revered TV specials, Broadway plays, traditional animated movies, decades’ worth of Hallmark cards and such universal love and appreciation that The Peanuts Movie, a 3-D, computer-animated update based on Schulz’s creations, seemed destined to do what Charlie Brown usually does: screw up everything. One shudders to imagine the notes that could result from running Snoopy through the typical micro-managing Hollywood wringer.
“Instead of squawking and giggling, maybe Snoopy and Woodstock could, like, text each other?”
“Is it possible for the kids to do the Nae Nae instead of whatever that weird, unsynchronized, jazz-piano dance is?”
“Maybe after Charlie Brown runs up to kick the football and misses, he could also fart? Kids love that!”
“Can we add a Meghan Trainor song in here? Kids love Meghan Trainor!”
Okay, so technically, yes, a Meghan Trainor song actually does wind up in The Peanuts Movie. But even that admittedly distracting touch can’t undo the film, which turns out to be the most pleasant family movie surprise of the year. Everything that could have gone so wrong is, for the most part, done right, keeping the timeless sensibility of Schulz — always one part cynical and one part warm-heartedly optimistic — thoroughly intact. Fifteen minutes into The Peanuts Movie — after Lucy calls Charlie Brown a blockhead, an adult speaks in those classic sad trombone tones, and a line drive knocks Charlie Brown and all his clothes off his pitcher’s mound — you might find yourself uttering one word. That word will be: “Phew.”
The precocious elementary-schoolers with so much good in their grief have not evolved one iota in terms of personality or behavior. Lucy is still offering psychological counseling at the rate of 5 cents per session and freaking out when dogs kiss her (“Get some disinfectant! Get some iodine!”). Sally is still calling Linus her Sweet Babboo, much to Linus’ security-blanket-carrying chagrin. Snoopy still attempts to bang out pretentious pulp fiction on his doghouse typewriter. As for Charlie Brown, he remains the Charlie Browniest: unable to fly kites, kick footballs or strike out a snowman and very much in love with the Little Red-Haired Girl who, in this chapter of the roundheaded kid’s saga, has just joined Miss Othmar’s class. (When the Little Red-Haired Girl’s moving van arrives in the neighborhood, Peanuts fans may notice it says “Mendelson Movers” on it, a nod to Lee Mendelson, who produced the many Charlie Brown TV specials.)
The movie’s plot — which is more like a series of vignettes than a structured narrative — focuses on Charlie Brown’s attempts to prove to the ginger beauty that he’s a winner, efforts that, naturally, often lead to embarrassing disasters. In a parallel storyline, Snoopy is also trying to become the hero to Fifi — a poodle some may recall from the 1980 television special, Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown — in one of his usual World War II-era, Red Baron-related dream sequences.
At times, the film admittedly feels a little like a Charlie Brown’s greatest-hits record. The screenwriters — Cornelius Uliano and Craig and Bryan Schulz, Schulz’s son and grandson, respectively — have clearly cherry-picked some of the more recognizable moments from previous strips and TV shows and used them as a foundation on which to build their movie. Hence, there’s a winter playtime scene set to the tune of Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” that’s reminiscent of A Charlie Brown Christmas; an attempt to keep Snoopy out of school with the words “No dogs allowed,” that calls to mind Snoopy Come Home; and a book report about War and Peace, something Charlie Brown previously tackled, under different circumstances, in the TV special Happy New Year, Charlie Brown! In another movie, the approach could seem lazy. Here, it feels enough like nostalgic homage to work fine.
There is some wonderfully fresh material here, too, including a sly dig at standardized testing and a few meta moments that, wisely, don’t oversell their meta-ness. (When, to everyone’s surprise, Charlie Brown is deemed an academic overachiever, Sally starts selling mugs and T-shirts with her brother’s face on them. “I’m cashing in on your celebrity,” she says innocently, with a subtextual wryness that’s pure Schulz.)
The richest delights of The Peanuts Movie are in the details that honor the legacy that Peanuts has already created. Under the direction of Steve Martino, the animation pulls off the unique trick of looking like a contemporary CG work, while maintaining the simple, hand-drawn lines of Schulz. The dark curls at the bottom of Lucy’s hair, for example, look more springy and tactile than ever, but her eyes are still just two dots between a pair of parentheses. Watching The Peanuts Movie is akin to watching a more multidimensional, pop-up version of one of Schulz’s old strips.
The cackles and chortles from Snoopy and Woodstock sound just like they did in the old TV specials, too, because they’re still delivered by Bill Melendez; archival material gives the bird-and-beagle buddies their familiar voices even though Melendez died in 2008. The Sopwith Camel adventures of Snoopy, which occasionally overstay their welcome, are also the same flights of absurdist fancy they’ve always been, but in 3-D, the landscapes over which he pretend-flies look broader, deeper and richer.
But maybe the best thing about The Peanuts Movie, with detail so perfect that it brings tears to my eyes, is the way that Charlie Brown daydreams. When the boy with the zig-zag T-shirt imagines himself at his best, he sees moving-picture versions of the old Schulz comics. Clearly the filmmakers know that, no matter how lovely their CG treatment may be, the Charlie Brown that he and we see in the mind’s eye will always look exactly the way that Charles M. Schulz, God of Peanuts, made him.