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Film Review: The Peanuts Movie
After debuting in the comic strips in the 1950's, Charles Schulz's Peanuts have dipped their feet in pretty much every medium - books, TV, music, stage plays. In fact, there already have been numerous feature films. So it should be no surprise that Charlie Brown and the gang are back on the big screen.
Considering that Peanuts was an episodic comic strip with a huge ensemble cast of characters, a simple point-A to point-B narrative was likely not in the cards. The narrative of The Peanuts Movie feels a little like a G-rated Caddyshack. (Now here me out on this!) Most of the movie is a series of vignettes that tie into the overarching narrative of Charlie Brown trying to win the affections of the Little Red-Haired Girl. These adventures include earning the highest score on a standardized test, trying to win a dance contest, and writing a book report. Meanwhile, Snoopy is writing his own story where he imagines himself as the World War I flying ace combating the Red Barron.
The narrative structure has its ups and downs. The good news is that despite juggling multiple stories, the film still flows well. The bad news is that some of these stories more or less hop to the next story without a satisfying ending. Realistically, the main draw of this movie is seeing the Peanuts gang and their various quirks - Lucy's psychiatry stand, Pig Pen's inability to stay clean, Schroeder's love of Beethoven. So it should be no surprise that the plot is just a clothesline to hang these elements on. And in that end, the film works. Every character has their time to shine, and nothing feels crow-barred or forced. Everything feels natural.
Although Charlie Brown is ostensibly the lead character of the film, it probably goes without saying that the real star is Snoopy. Admittedly his side-plot ties in little with the the main plot. However, it does add some cinematic excitement to an otherwise down-to-Earth story. Even with his own subplot, Snoopy still participates in the main story. Snoopy owns every scene he is in. He does not speak (Not counting laughs and other sound effects) so his appearance has a silent film quality where he communicates his feelings or expresses a joke merely through his facial expressions.
One of the things that makes this film work is that like the comic strips, the film retains a timeless quality. For the longest time, I was concerned that a Peanuts movie would be updated in the worst way - the gang using modern technology, pop songs, and a whole boatload of references that would be dated by the end of the calendar year. However, the film exists in the classic world of the comic strip. Snoopy still uses a typewriter (a technology old enough that even I haven't used one), Charlie Brown still has to hand write his report. There are some pop songs by the likes Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida, but you know what? They actually fit in the movie, mostly because they are used in the right context. (And the Meghan Trainor song is pretty good to boot.) Much of the other music is the classic Vince Guaraldi score and classical music from Beethoven - you know, for Schroeder.
Much like the comics, The Peanuts Movie has a sweet innocence to it - the kind of idealized childhood that people enjoy observing through art like this but most people probably did not experience. Most of the movie is funny. Not every joke is laugh-out-loud funny. As a matter of fact, some of the jokes fall flat, but even in those instances, the sweet charm that it is easy to keep a smile during the film's entire duration. Charlie Brown's trademark pessimism sometimes comes up, and the film waxes philosophical. Some of these are lines taken directly from the comic strips - Touching tributes for the fans and fresh ideas to new viewers.
The film's animation is absolutely gorgeous. The 2D style of the comic strips is emulated using 3D textures. Snoopy has realistic fur (though that is only noticeable in certain close-ups). While the humans have sort of a doll look. The design is also extremely vibrant and colorful. There are throwbacks to the comic strip as Charlie Brown's fantasies are recreated in spot on style of the comics. Also, there are moments where sound effects are recreated on-screen, straight from Schulz's strip. This is one of those movies where I want to see it again just to look at it!
With so much to like about The Peanuts Movie, are there any flaws? Well, the film's main narrative is Charlie Brown's pursuit of the Little Red-Haired Girl. Unfortunately, she feels to much like a Macguffin and not like a character - her personality never feels fully fleshed out. MILD SPOILER - At the end of the movie, she does hook up - or at least say she is going to hook up - with Charlie Brown. We never really learn enough about the character for it to make sense. Yeah, I understand the idea of leaving the audience with a warm fuzzy feeling, but with The Little Red-Haired Girl - for crying out loud, her name is never even revealed (I am aware that's a holdover from the comics, but I digress). This is the sort of thing that will likely make some audience members - especially the young ones - will find sweet while other audience members will probably see through it. Though maybe I am just riding the high of Inside Out, which showed that a movie can have a happy ending even if the hero does not get exactly what they want. After all, long time Peanuts fans will likely be happy to see Charlie Brown FINALLY catch a break.
Also, in theaters, the film is preceded by the short Cosmic Scrat-tostrophe. It is a short Ice Age's Scrat chasing an acorn through space. What can I say about this short? It certainly happens, no argument there. Okay, I laughed twice, but overall found it forgettable. The thing that blew me away was that they roped in the A-list movie talent to record a few short lines.
Overall, The Peanuts Movie is an instant classic that Charles Schulz would likely be proud of. It is a great animated film that remains faithful to its source material. It occured to me after the fact that this will likely be the induction to Peanuts for many younger generation, and this is as good of an introduction to Charlie Brown and the gang that some may hope for.
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