Somewhere, the late, great Charles M. Schulz is smiling, because the folks at Blue Sky Studios, with a little help from his son and grandson, got “Peanuts” right.
The Peanuts Movie, the new 3D animated feature that brings Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy, Linus, and the whole gang to life on the big screen as never before, is a loving celebration of all that’s charming, inspiring, and heart-warming about the “Peanuts” characters and their world as a whole. Though the only “new ground” it breaks is in its visual presentation, the notes it hits in its storytelling, as well as its overall tone and elegant simplicity, are all that any fan of this material could ask for in a modern feature-length version.
The story here is as “Peanuts” as it gets: Poor Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) finds himself flustered as never before when someone new moves into the neighborhood, right across the street: the prettiest, most amazing Little Red-Haired Girl he’s ever seen. Hopelessly smitten, he finds himself paralyzed with terror at the prospect of actually talking to her, and seemingly no amount of “Psychiatric Help” from Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), gentle wisdom from Linus (Alex Garfin) or outright pushing and prodding from Snoopy can get him over his fear. What will it take, he wonders, for the Little Red-Haired Girl to notice him, if anything? After all, why on Earth would someone like her ever notice a blockhead like him?
Snoopy, meanwhile, inspired by his master’s sudden romantic affliction, undertakes to hash away on an old typewriter the greatest love story of them all, a passion borne in the skies over France during the Great War between the World War I Flying Ace and Fifi (Kristin Chenowith), a female poodle pilot of equal skill and daring, as they face off with and endeavor to defeat the infamous Red Baron once and for all.
So while Charlie Brown muddles and bumbles his way through school talent shows, dance contests, standardized tests, and daunting book reports, all the while agonizing over how to catch the Little Red-Haired Girl’s eye without making a further fool of himself, Snoopy the Flying Ace duels his nemesis and chases after his one true love once she falls into the Baron’s clutches, leading to a last epic showdown from which only one of them can return. A boy and his very imaginative dog, both chasing true love as only they each can, surrounded by family and friends either cheering them on or shaking their heads in absolute bewilderment. How absolutely, perfectly “Peanuts” is that?
The script for The Peanuts Movie comes from Craig and Bryan Schulz, Charles’ son and grandson, respectively, along with Bryan Schulz’s writing partner Cornelius Uliano, and draws inspiration from just about every well-known “Peanuts” storyline from the comic strips and the animated specials of the 60’s through to the 80’s. There are nods throughout the film’s 88 minutes to everything from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and appearances and contributions made by all of the Peanuts gang, including several of Snoopy’s more famous alter egos in addition to “The World War I Flying Ace.” Again, while the overarching stories told here have never quite been organized and told this way, they are not new, per se, and in all honesty, that doesn’t matter one little bit. The fact is that this is the first “Peanuts” feature film in 35 years — even if it is classic Schulz material reworked and freshened up, it will still feel new to fans, and of course it will be brand new to kids who weren’t alive the last time Charlie Brown and co. took a bow in theaters.
As for the visuals here, and the reverent treatment with which director Steve Martino (Ice Age: Continental Drift, Horton Hears a Who!) and the animators at Blue Sky Studios handle Schulz’s characters and their world, there’s simply no other word to describe it except “perfect.” There’s no effort to “modernize” or “stylize” the characters — rather, the animators here give their all to add texture and detail what had previously been flat and featureless. The shine and individual strands of hair in Lucy’s black hair, the down of Snoopy fur, the thick cotton of Charlie Brown’s many yellow sweaters, all of these add a richness to surround the expressive lines of the character’s eyes and mouths, which still are crafted as though line-drawn. Backgrounds are given further depth and detail while still retaining the Schulzian simplicity and sense of space. Snoopy’s fantasy World War I sequences, during which he romances Fifi and duels with the Red Baron, are particularly gorgeous in terms of sweeping, breathtaking motion and bold color — rendered as they are here, it’s quite easy to see how the intrepid beagle might get lost in his Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy.
If there’s any reason at all to be concerned that The Peanuts Movie won’t be a universal crowd-pleaser, it is perhaps that the story and characters here lack the maniac energy and “edge” that characterizes today’s entertainment geared towards young children, but really, that’s exactly the way it should be. Though its characters and stories did evolve in the course of its decades in syndication, “Peanuts” always held on to its tone and essential themes: the value of friendship and kindness, and the power of the imagination, each exemplified by its main characters: the hapless, hopeless, yet still beloved boy and his creative and courageous dog. The Peanuts Movie honors that commitment to those themes and gives them life in a timeless way, for a whole new generation of children to enjoy, and for those of us who loved the original to enjoy all over again.
The Peanuts Movie
Starring the voices of Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, A.J. Tecce, Noah Johnston, Venus Omega Schultheis, Alex Garfin, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Marleik “Mar Mar” Walker, Mariel Sheets, Rebecca Bloom, William “Alex” Wunsch, Anastasia Bredikhina, Madisyn Shipman, with Kristin Chenowith and Bill Melendez. Directed by Steve Martino.
Running Time: 88 minutes