Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie
Directed by: Steve Martino.
Written by: Bryan Schulz & Craig Schulz & Cornelius Uliano based on the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz.
Starring: Noah Schnapp (Charlie Brown), Bill Melendez (Snoopy / Woodstock), Hadley Belle Miller (Lucy), Alexander Garfin (Linus), Rebecca Bloom (Marcie), Francesca Capaldi (The Little Red-Haired Girl / Frieda), Noah Johnston (Schroeder), Venus Schultheis (Peppermint Patty), Mariel Sheets (Sally), A.J. Tecce (Pig-Pen), Marleik Mar Walker (Franklin), Madisyn Shipman (Violet Gray), Anastasia Bredikhina (Patty), Kristin Chenoweth (Fifi), Trombone Shorty (Miss Othmar / Mrs. Little Red-Haired Girl), Micah Revelli (Little Kid), William Wunsch (Shermy).

Growing up, I was a big fan of comic strips – and had books and books of my favorites – mainly Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, and yes, Peanuts. Calvin & Hobbes remains my favorite of all time, Garfield has faded from memory – but Peanuts, even if I haven’t revisited those books very often lately, remains lodged in my memory. The strip offered simple pleasures – but it really is more complex than they first appear to be – especially when you have a relationship with those characters for years and years on end. The Peanuts Movie was perhaps inevitable – unlike Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes – creator Charles M. Schulz seemed to have no qualms about “selling out” – so Peanuts merchandising, TV specials and shows has been the norm since before I was born in 1981. What I feared the new movie would do is jazz up Schulz’s original creators for the modern computer animation and 3-D age, replacing Schulz’s simple wisdom, humor and touch of melancholy with non-stop action, color and excitement – which modern studios seemed to think audiences want. I am therefore happy to report that the makers of the movie did not do that (at least not totally). In fact, watching The Peanuts Movie is not unlike sitting down with one of those large volumes of collected Peanuts strips and reading for a couple of hours. The structure of the movie is really a bunch of short, little stories that have a narrative through line to be sure, but is broken up into smaller little stories – much like a daily cartoon strip would be. This structure has its positives and negatives – positive because I think it is mainly true to the spirit of Peanuts, negative because breaking it up like this makes the film feel a little lighter and more forgettable than it otherwise would be. The impact of Peanuts, the cartoon strip, is in the relationship the reader builds with the characters day after day, year after year – which is something that no movie can really match.

My biggest relief while watching The Peanuts movie was that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to try and modernize Schulz’s old school charm. The film is from the same makers of the Ice Age series – which has gotten increasingly annoying over the years – but here they mainly follow Schulz’s lead, and put our hero Charlie Brown, through a series of unfortunate events. The through line is that he is constantly trying to win over the Little Red Haired Girl – who moved in across the street and is now in his class, but over the course of the school year, Charlie Brown keeps messing up and embarrassing himself. One of Charlie Brown’s greatest strengths is that no matter what happens, he picks himself up, dusts himself off and goes right back to work – and so he does so here as well. The movie brings back some of his “greatest hits” as it were – his struggles with kites, his inability to pitch, and at the very last minute, trying to kick the football that Lucy is holding. The secondary plot is about Snoopy retreating into his fantasy world fighting with the Red Baron, as the WWI flying ace on his doghouse. I imagine the filmmakers went with this as the secondary plot to allow the film to add in some action and excitement – but they never overdo, and after all, Schulz definitely created it himself.

One of the casualties of a movie like this is that without a lot of time, the filmmakers are not really able to focus on anyone other than Charlie Brown and Snoopy. True, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Sally, Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Woodstock and the rest are there – and from what we see of them, they are very much like the characters Schulz created – but they are very much supporting characters – seen in the film only as they relate to Charlie Brown, and not as characters unto themselves. Charlie Brown and Snoopy were always the stars of the Peanuts strip – but they were never the only players – something that unfortunately the movie is not able to replicate – even if I was impressed with the vocal performances of the actual children they hired to players the iconic characters.

My quibbles with The Peanuts Movie are mainly minor – and really, to be expected. No movie can possibly do what a daily comic strip does (just like no comic strip can do what a movie does). The proper way to appreciate Peanuts is, of course, those strips. The Peanuts Movie is a fun little piece of nostalgia – something I enjoyed perhaps because of the relationship I brought to the characters before I entered the theater – although I will say that my four year old seemed utterly charmed by the film as well. And so the cycle continues.

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