There are two basic constituencies for The Peanuts Movie. One is today’s kids, who know Charles M. Schulz’s creations through reruns of their many animated specials, four prior feature films, maybe productions of the stage musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and of course the merchandising. To offer two reactions from that camp: It skewed a little old for my 4-year-old son, who enjoyed Snoopy but was a bit fidgety during the rest, yet delighted my 7-year-old daughter.
The other constituency is yesteryear’s kids, like, me. We knew Peanuts as a “comic strip,” printed daily in something called “newspapers,” and read it faithfully, buying collections of the cartoonist’s life work in book form. We knew the specials, the movies, and the musical first-hand, or close enough to it. We bought the original merchandise (and maybe barter it on eBay). We mourned the passing of Peanuts, and Schulz, 15 years ago.
We were skeptical of a new Peanuts movie, from the studio behind the sophomoric Ice Age movies, with CGI characters and viewable, good grief, through surcharged 3D glasses. A 21st century Charlie Brown? We have issues, that only an analyst as highly regarded as Lucy could address.
Relax. You’re a good movie, Charlie Brown.
Let’s start with the animation. The appeal of, say, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), is that it looks as if the strip was just lifted off the page and fit right into your TV set. The appeal of The Peanuts Movie is that the strip has been lifted off the page and given up-to-date contouring and texturing; the characters haven’t gone down the weird “humanoid” route that mars some CGI animated features. They sound pretty much the way they sounded in the old cartoons, with the late Bill Melendez providing the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock via archival recordings, Troy (“Trombone Shorty”) Andrews adding distinctive “wah-wahs” as the unseen grownups, and Kristin Chenoweth, who won a Tony playing Sally in a Broadway revival of the musical, as…see, or hear, for yourself. “Christmas Time is Here” and other Vince Guaraldi compositions are sprinkled throughout Christophe Beck’s score. Your childhood hasn’t been ransacked.
More importantly, any lower common denominator “Blue Sky” tendencies director Steve Martino may have are curbed by the production, co-written and co-produced by Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. Other than Snoopy’s battle fantasies involving the Red Baron, which give the 3D a modest workout (with some image depth and mild “pop out,” let’s call it 2.75D), it’s as low key and introspective as the strip, with gags that last about four panels, Charlie Brown’s worried ruminations, and recreations of golden oldie moments providing the script. It’s not, thankfully, some sort of “origins story”–you meet the gang at Christmastime and follow them up until summer break, as our ever-inadequate hero fumbles attempt after attempt to meet the Little Red-Haired Girl. Awkward encounters and small disasters, like the unexpected consequences of Charlie Brown’s acing a test at school, drive the plot. It’s not hard sell.
That is, until you leave the theater, and your kids demand you stop at McDonald’s to purchase Happy Meals with Peanuts-related figurines. (Ok, done.) In the 60s and 70s, Peanuts was a juggernaut to rival Disney in its insecure, Charlie Brown days, and after a period of relative inactivity the franchise is back, with new stuff to go with it. But I didn’t mind. The Peanuts Movie retains the charm, wistfulness, and spirit of the Peanuts of yore, and my money was parted from my wallet, gently.