There are so many ways Blue Sky Studios could have screwed up the new “Peanuts” movie.
At some point some studio suit must have wanted to insert a flatulence joke or Snoopy writing a blog or a cross-promotion with Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater.
But the beloved characters created by Charles Schulz remain pure; at least until the sequel. Snoopy and Charlie Brown are locked in that time when a snow day meant playing with friends outside, typewriters and newspapers were primary forms of communication and amateur psychiatry still cost just five cents.
“Peanuts” is not a perfect film, but it remains almost completely true to its original values. It’s a snowflake slowly falling to the melancholy notes of Vince Guaraldi. About the worst thing you can say about its integrity is that the ending is maybe 50 percent too happy for a Peanuts purist’s tastes.
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Seeing the 3D computer versions of the Peanuts gang takes a few minutes to get used to; the female characters seem to adapt the best, while Linus and Pig Pen look like they have hair plugs culled from the twigs of a dead tree. But director Steve Martino and the writers – including two of Schulz’s kin – ease our concerns with obvious and subliminal cues.
There are no famous actors voicing the children – Blue Sky uses unknowns just as the producers did for the television special holy trinity “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” (1973). The filmmakers even found a way to bring the late Bill Melendez back – Snoopy and Woodstock “speak” with the familiar Melendez chirps and howls recorded before his 2008 death.
Like the best “Peanuts” TV specials (and there were scores of bad ones you forgot or didn’t see), the movie is happy to meander, weaving slapstick, childhood wisdom and Snoopy hallucinations around a loose plot. This one focuses on the Little Red-Haired Girl, a new neighbor of Charlie Brown. Our wishy-washy hero spends an entire school year fretting over his feelings about the classmate.
While the best Schulz specials showed, this movie often tells. “Remember, it’s the courage to continue that counts,” Linus says in the first five minutes, sounding like a professor of pop culture as he prompts the audience that there is dignity in Charlie Brown’s constant optimism/failure cycle.
Co-writers Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano speed the gag-to-musical interlude ratio up to 21st Century animated movie levels, wisely leaning heavily on Woodstock for comic relief. (If it does nothing else, “Peanuts” makes a strong argument that everyone from the Minions to R2-D2 owe their careers to Snoopy’s little yellow sidekick.)
After the screenwriters and Woodstock, the MVP of the film is composer Christophe Beck. The movie and TV veteran manages to weave in several Guaraldi beats along with a few modern songs in the musical score – and makes it all sound like classic Charlie Brown.
“Peanuts” is more obvious and exposition-heavy than most Schulz productions, but that doesn’t detract from its more complicated adult-friendly messages. Pixar’s “Inside Out” had a tighter narrative, but both 2015 animated films aim their emotional impact squarely at the chaperones in the audience, and carve out buried emotions with a scalpel. Charlie Brown always carried pain in a way that adults could identify with more than children. Martino and the writers understand that.
The one problem these filmmakers can’t solve is how to squeeze the Schulz magic into feature length. At a relatively lean 93 minutes, “Peanuts” is still almost 70 minutes longer than the shortest of the good TV specials. That’s a lot of time watching Charlie Brown squirm and suffer, even if the ending has a redemptive quality.
Heading into the fringes of spoiler territory with the next five sentences:
Peanuts purists might argue that the movie’s last scenes are a little too redemptive, before a post-credits sequence backs off a little. The original comic strip often featured woe with the door left open for happiness. “Peanuts” delivers genuine happiness with the door left open for woe. Schulz had his own chance to give his protagonist the same result as this movie in his final strips, and declined. Should the filmmakers have done the same?
Who knows what Schulz would have thought about “Peanuts.” It’s hard to believe he would have been anything less than thrilled with the overall effort. People who understand and care about the cartoonist made the film, and it shows in the solidly made, often lovely, finished product.
The Peanuts Movie
Rated: G. Voices: Noah Schnapp, Francesca Capaldi, Hadley Belle Miller, Venus Schultheis, Mariel Sheets. Director: Steve Martino. Running time: 93 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21 (2D, 3D), Edwards 9 (2D, 3D), Edwards 14 (2D, 3D), Edwards 12 (2D, 3D), Majestic 18 (2D, 3D), Village Cinema (2D, 3D).