That's what reboots are all about, Charlie Brown
Few American franchises from the 20th century have had the enduring appeal of Peanuts. In addition to the long running comic strip by Charles Schulz that was a pillar of the funny pages for half a century, there’s the 50-odd shorts and a couple of TV series have been put out under the Peanuts banner. Most iconic are a few Bill Melendez-directed seasonal shorts that are mandatory annual watching viewing for millions of families around the world (mine included). The Christmas special remains my favorite animated short ever made (at least until I kick off that Looney Tunes rewatch).
Schulz died in 2000, six years before production on this film by Blue Sky Studios began, and a whopping 15 years before the film released. The film bears multiple notations that it is a Schulz-approved project, which is a bit disingenuous. However, the film was spearheaded by a Schulz. In fact, two of them — Charles’ son and grandson, who each get writer and producer credits on the film.
It’s a double-edged sword to undertake a modern Peanuts film meant to essentially reboot the series. On the one hand, you want to display some reverence to the Peanuts legacy that is often known for prickly and melancholy content. On the other hand, you want to freshen the material for a new generation. You have a built-in audience, a pre-established roster of characters, and a familiar set of scenarios and gags that should give you more than enough material for a satisfying feature. But the margin for error is low. If you don’t nail the tone or the characters or the look, you’ll have desecrated something sacred.
I am relieved and quite honestly overjoyed at the results. It’s hard to imagine an act of modernization and streamlining of Peanuts for kids in the 2010s going as well as it did here. The chief triumph is the animation itself, which uses 3D CGI to simulate the familiar two dimensional look and framing of a Peanuts comic. The character designs are just right, and somehow the 2D vs. 3D blend doesn’t make them look too alien. On top of that are some genuinely inventive flourishes that evoke comic strips and Melendez’s sketch-like animation of the classic specials. The colors are bright and evocative, not quite the same level of soul-stirring as the inky skies in Great Pumpkin or the kaleidoscopic Christmas tree lot in the Christmas special, but still quite pleasing. Blue Sky has also applied an unexpected amount of felt-like texture, which heightens the sensation that we’re in a kids playhouse.
(One visual nitpick: Charlie Brown’s hair, as well as the hair of a few of the other boy characters, looks a little bit off. It has strange heft and physics to it, as opposed to the comics and specials, where boy hair usually just looks like little wisps.)
The story works quite well, too. One clever bit of writing is to span the story across multiple seasons so we get that distinct Peanuts seasonal special feeling. I should note, though, that it spans from winter to summer, meaning there’s no autumn or Great Pumpkin content other than a few throwaway references. Maybe they were saving that for a potential sequel.
The film follows Charlie Brown’s attempt to woo his new neighbor, an unnamed, red haired girl. She’s typically shown at obscured angles, so we don’t quite see her face. This, along with the fact that she does not have a name, gives us the sense that she is an abstraction of childhood crushes, those magic tween-aged years before puberty when romance is as simple as butterflies in your stomach.
More broadly, the film is a bunch of charming scenarios stitched together with medium amounts of connective tissues in the script. All of these scenarios ultimately result in Charlie Brown humiliating himself, although there’s less of a self-destructive edge to these punchlines than typically found in the specials. Here, Charlie Brown comes off as heroic, even when he has egg on his face. For example, he sabotages his own talent show act to save his sister’s and holds Marcie’s punch bowl when it’s his turn to show off his dance moves.
I liked nearly all of these episodes within the film, with the exception of a segment where Charlie Brown is mistaken for a genius after a mix-up gives him credit for someone else’s perfect test scores. This thread has a little bit of fun satire on the commercialization of the Peanuts franchise, but overall it’s the wonkiest and slowest part of the film, especially because it diminishes the impact of people finally coming to respect Charlie Brown towards the end of the film. We’ve already seen them worship him as a celebrity for 15 minutes in the middle act!
Intermixed with the schoolyard sitcom shenanigans are extended fantasy sequences starring Woodstock and Snoopy. These segments, as in the specials, feature the most ambitious animation. And much like the specials, I find that they suck the momentum of the story a little bit. While I enjoy how these segments parallel whatever is going on in Charlie Brown’s life, it ends up feeling like bonus shorts smashed into the middle of the film. At least it gives Blue Sky a chance to get ambitious with the animation as flying ace Snoopy hunts down the Red Baron in elaborate action sequences featuring dogfights (pun intended), heists, and rescue missions.
The film’s sweetness verges into cloying in its final fifteen minutes. The ending is very happy. The few elements of the finale that are bittersweet — like a new friend trudging off to summer camp — are so minor in their bitterness that we can essentially just call them sweet. This doesn’t feel quite right for a Peanuts story. A good Peanuts story — comic, special, or feature-length — ends with at least a little bit of melancholy or irony. But not here. It’s a sentimental and touching conclusion, which is nice, but doesn’t feel in line with a peanuts and Charlie Brown ethos.
Nonetheless, The Peanuts Movie a film that overall just works really well. It’s funny and sweet! It’s got a great visual identity that’s well-executed, it uses its familiar ensemble very well, and it’s fun to spend time with for its duration. Any longer than 88 minutes would have been too long — and, honestly, even that long feels a little padded during its middle act. But still: Much more good than grief, I’d say.