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The Peanuts Movie

November 5, 2015
The Peanuts Movie

When Black Mass came out, the most vociferous criticism came from Boston-area reviewers; they take Whitey Bulger seriously there. Well, I’m originally from Minneapolis, and up there we take Charles Schulz more seriously than most. And while there may be little that’s actively terrible about Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie, it’s just not my Peanuts.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that Schulz was the paragon of artistic identity that Bill Watterson was — the day his estate sells the movie rights to Calvin & Hobbes will be a dark one indeed — but he did try to use his creations for more than just a cash grab. The original and most famous animated Peanuts special stood as a cri de coeur against the 1960s’ rising tide of Christmas commercialism. That said, today it’s chopped up and edited down to fit in more ads; the message has become somewhat diluted.

To the good, The Peanuts Movie is a calmer, slightly more thoughtful affair than most non-Pixar feature animation today, and a huge improvement over Blue Sky’s Ice Age and Rio movies. They again went to children for the voice acting, which shows someone was paying at least a little attention. For what it’s worth they’re clearly more professional than the original cast from the specials, whom they mimic fairly well. It’s easy enough to slip back into thinking of these as just the same old familiar characters in new skins.

I can’t speak as highly of their choice for the animation, though: a ghastly collage of realistic hair textures, soft-sculpture bodies, and Schulz’ line-work for detail. Nothing was wrong with the classic animation style that held up fine through the original four animated Peanuts features. Moving to a rendered look does allow them to tack on a surcharge for 3-D effects that are wasted outside of Snoopy’s running Red Baron fantasies, and aren’t that impressive then either.

The story is largely cobbled together from old Peanuts storylines, centered around Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl. While dealing with a crush like this was important for the strip, it was never really the strongest bit and Schulz was wise not to go back to it too often. If the object of Charlie Brown’s affection is somewhat abstracted from his experience, it makes a sort of sense that she never really gets a proper name. But as the main focus of this story the fact that nobody seems to know her name starts to stick out a lot more.

Since her appellation is canonical in the strip, there’s probably no good way to change it for the movie, which just indicates how bad an idea it was to build the script around this story. So why did they do it? again, the obvious answer is that it was the easy, profitable way. A love interest is a nice, canned story that kids already understand, so using one is a good way to avoid challenging them. And using two is even better, so Snoopy’s fantasy itself centers around rescuing “Fifi” from the Red Baron.

There’s a lot of other stuff going on too, mostly drawn from old Peanuts tropes. There’s Snoopy stealing Linus’ blanket, Lucy’s crush on Schroeder, the kite-eating tree, Frieda’s naturally-curly hair, and so on. The first half hour is basically a litany of “hey, remember this from the comic strip?” moments. And they cram in almost every peripheral character they can, down to 5 95472’s name on a posted list of standardized test scores. About the only notable character I didn’t notice was Rerun, whom even Schulz seemed apologetic for at the time.

As rote as the nostalgia-fest can get, the quality falls off when the movie ventures onto new ground, especially when it feels more modern than Schulz’ strip. Mostly, it resembles the cash-grab Peanuts specials from the ’90s on. It’s not as pandering as most animated kids’ movies these days, but it comes more from an effort to make “what [the writers think] kids will like” than to make something good and invite the kids to come along, the way Schulz did at his best.

Because, at its best, Peanuts was always about goodness, especially in the face of adversity. Near the beginning of the movie, Charlie Brown muses that he’s always been a failure, but not for the lack of trying. He struggles and falls, but never gives in to cheap, mean shortcuts. He is honest and decent and generous, even in his defeat.

The Peanuts Movie at least gets that much. But, by the end, it shows that it doesn’t really understand what made Peanuts so great. Charlie Brown — my Charlie Brown, at least — will never kick the football. He will never keep his kite out of the tree. He will never win more than a handful of baseball games. Charlie Brown isn’t honest and decent and generous because this is a just world where eventually he will be rewarded for taking the high road. He is all these things despite the fact that the world is stacked against him, and he still knows that it’s the right thing to do.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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