It’s easy to lose track of how many times audiences have had to watch a movie adaptation of a beloved children’s cartoon. The same can be said about how many times these adaptations have left people cold and annoyed over how classless and cheap they are made into movies. Everything from Alvin & the Chipmunks to The Smurfs to, more recently, Jem and the Holograms has been like watching the stuffed animal you had when you were little get thrown into a wood chipper; it’s so hard to watch and it breaks your heart. So it’s not hard to imagine the hesitancy and uneasiness felt when 20th Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios announced plans to bring Charles M. Schulz’s classic comic strip Peanuts to the 21st century big screen. But with Charles’ son Craig and Craig’s son Bryan on board to write the script, there’s a sense of optimism that the spirit and maturity of Schulz’s work would remain untouched from the money-hungry demands of movie studios. So whether it was the work they saw that could be done with the material beyond standard animated kid fare or a treasuring of the source material, they pulled it off in spades.
The Peanuts Movie follows good ol’ Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) as he continues his struggle of being the awkward boy next door. He’s got good intentions and a big heart, if only his nerves didn’t get in the way all the time. He’s got his buddy Linus (Alexander Garfin), little sister Sally (Mariel Sheets), temperamental Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), sporty Peppermint Patty (Venus Schultheis) and his ever reliable pets Snoopy and Woodstock. But this time around, there’s a new girl in town (simply called The Little Red-Head Girl) that Charlie immediately falls for. He just wants her to notice him, but he keeps goofing up in the process. Charlie must build up his confidence to talk to the girl and prove he’s not a blockhead.
If I could use one word to describe The Peanuts Movie, it would probably be “zany.” The hyper movement and animation of the movie is in tune to Schulz’s work while adding a bit of screwball humor reminiscent of Looney Tunes. Fortunately, there are no sex puns or subtle adult humor to sour the bright mood of the whole thing. It’s a straight up the middle kids’ movie, and it also doesn’t use that as an excuse to make cheap laughs or potty humor. Like Peanuts classics, it focuses on the ol’ punching bag Charlie Brown and how he continuously shows his kindness even when he’s on the verge of total success or total humiliation. The movie sticks with that as the plot, and yes it’s the typical “boy tries to get the girl” thing without any new twist to it. Nothing is brought into a modern context, nothing is given a new spin. This movie has its feet planted in Schulz’s original era.
The only modern thing about The Peanuts Movie is its animation, and that gives it an extra kick. Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Rio) makes Peanuts look and feel alive. The warm colors and balance between 2D and 3D make Peanuts really work, especially in the 3D subplot of Snoopy writing a story as a Great War fighter pilot chasing The Red Baron (don’t worry, it’s funnier than it sounds). The voice acting is very solid too, using actual kids to voice all the characters. If there’s one thing that holds Peanuts back, it’s how faithful it is to the source material. This movie is religiously loyal to the mindset of Schulz (hell, it’s written by his two proceeding generations) and may turn off others who have a low tolerance for cute or predictable plot lines.
But here’s the kicker: The Peanuts Movie works BECAUSE it’s simple. The movie felt like it wasn’t trying to sell a toy or be cooler than it actually is. It’s modern technology trying to boost and promote an old (but forgotten) lesson. It’s ok to be a loser sometimes, it’s not all that bad. There are little to no distractions from the melancholy found in Schulz’s original work and message. Charlie Brown isn’t always a winner, because nobody is always a winner. But if kids keep trying and put themselves out there, it won’t be long before they find their own happiness. That’s an important message to put out there for kids, even if they’ll forget it as soon as they get back home and watch Minions again. Speaking of which, what was that movie’s message again?