It’s not the great reboot, Charlie Brown!
Just over a month into the 65th anniversary of the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown and his pet beagle have returned in a new, syrupy sweet, 3D animated adventure. The Peanuts Movie features the reliably forlorn Charlie Brown suddenly lovestruck by the arrival of a new girl in school, while Snoopy daydreams about flying against the Red Baron and winning the heart of a poofy, pink puppy named Fifi (whose wordless squeaks are voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, for a reason, we assume).
Coming out over 15 years removed from Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz’s death and the end of his iconic comic strip, The Peanuts Movie feels like a relic from a bygone era of languid kids entertainment. Co-writers Craig Schulz (Charles’ son), Bryan Schulz (Charles’ grandson), and Cornelius Uliano (no known relation) retain the wholesome, Americana appeal of the original comics and cartoons – talent shows, book reports, snow days and all. Its charms are mild, inoffensive fun, but after an hour both me and a nearby row of 7-year-olds had trouble sitting still.
Giving its cast of characters a computer-generated facelift, the character models of The Peanuts Movie incorporate hand-drawn aesthetics for mouths and eyes. It’s jarring for a little while, but the animation remains moderately faithful to the original Peanuts look. The animators mine the expressiveness of thin, sketchy smirks or glares for clever bits of interaction or a sudden, funny stare-down between Charlie Brown and his dog, but the blend between the film’s pristine environments and its more crude characters doesn’t seem right. The mix never quite coalesces properly.
The Peanuts Movie embraces its childlike sensibility with dreamlike sequences in which Charlie Brown is free to float among a bed of beating hearts or bounce head-first down a snowy hillside being dragged kite-first; however, the action is practically static in comparison to the frantic energy of cartoon contemporaries like SpongeBob or Cars. Snoopy’s several recurring fighter pilot fantasies were a delight to the 3-year-old on his mother’s lap in the seat next to mine, but they unfold with frustratingly little imagination. A lot of time there’s not much story happening on screen.
There are several amusing minor bits, such as Schroeder’s school desk piano or Woodstock circling around his bird’s nest with a tiny snow blower, but there is a scarcity of laughs in The Peanuts Movie. Compared to films from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, companies that line their movies with punch lines and Easter eggs, The Peanuts Movie seems slight. Whereas the Toy Story films are packed with pop culture references and themes of jealousy or abandonment, The Peanuts Movie has an anxious Charlie Brown name-checking the concept of mortgage.
Child actors provide the voices of the Peanuts characters, which is a peculiar authentic diversion from the norm for animated kids flicks. Credit casting director Christian Kaplan for assembling a crew of youngsters whose voices match the general tone of previous actors to have held the roles of Linus, Patty and Marcie. While Hadley Belle Miller’s Lucy doesn’t sound like my recollection of the character, she serves her purpose. Snoopy and Woodstock’s signature high-pitched squeals, meanwhile, are lifted from the archived Bill Melendez sound bites that keep with Peanuts tradition.
Does the Peanuts legacy simply loom too large over The Peanuts Movie? As should be expected, the new film comes ready with Great Pumpkin & Vince Guaraldi references. The Peanuts Movie plays out more like a tribute album than new material. Many of the jokes are lifted from original Peanuts comics or cartoons, and its version of upsetting the status quo is to introduce a Charlie Brown love interest un-creatively named Little Red-Headed Girl (she learns your name, Charlie Brown, the least you should do is return the favor).
The Peanuts Movie makes for a pleasant-enough update that might introduce some younger generations to Snoopy and the Peanuts gang, but it’s far from a comparable substitute.
The Peanuts Movie is more tribute album than fresh material. It aims to honor Charles M. Schulz’s legacy while doing little to sustain it.