Few newspaper comic strips have had the staying power and cultural awareness of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. Written and illustrated by Schulz, the series ran for half a century, encompassing 17,897 comic strips by the end of its tenure, which prompted Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson to describe it as “arguably the longest story ever told by one human being”. But no new Peanuts strips have been produced for a while now, and while the world may still know the names Snoopy and Charlie Brown and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown may still get a ton of play every Halloween, does a Peanuts movie work in this day and age?
The short answer is yes. The long answer is a little more complicated.
Directed by Primetime Emmy Award winner Steve Martino (Ice Age: Continental Drift, Horton Hears a Who!) from a script by Bryan Schulz (Charles Schulz’s grandson), Craig Schulz (Charles Schulz’s son) and Cornelius Uliano (the guy who wrote Grandpa and The Space Race, no relation to Charles Schulz), The Peanuts Movie picks up with Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) going to school one morning to discover that the new girl who has moved into the house across the street has joined his class. Enamoured with her, despite never having said a word to her, Charlie devises a series of plans to get her to notice him. Lacking much (if any) self confidence, he’s convinced that the only chance he has to get her to notice him is to do something extraordinary, an endeavour in which he is supported by his loyal but trouble making dog Snoopy (the late Academy Award nominee Bill Melendez through archival recordings).
When examined closely, it becomes obvious that The Peanuts Movie has received a great deal of thought and care in the construction of its story and themes. The film picks up with Charlie Brown lamenting his inability to fly a kite, a metaphor for his own insecurities that the movie will return to multiple times as it goes on. The girl Charlie Brown so persistently pursues has her face hidden in careful blocking through every scene, a representation of the fact that she isn’t a real person to Charlie, rather an ideal, a stranger that he’s assigned an arbitrary significance without ever having spoken to her. There’s a huge amount of depth and symbolism throughout the film, and it’s all done quite well.
The film is sweet and heartwarming without ever verging on cloying, and its use of slapstick humour and wordless visual gags are effective and extremely entertaining. Snoopy’s escapades in particular are rather fun, as he obtains a typewriter and begins to write out an imagined story of himself as a fighter pilot who’s dogged (ha-ha) by his sinister nemesis The Red Baron. These are cute recurring segments that the film returns to every so often and while they get a little needlessly over the top towards the end, they’re a nice aside.
The humour matches that of the comic strip brilliantly and the script does a terrific job of tying together a bunch of recurring jokes as well as bringing all the movie’s themes home to roost in the finale. I was a little annoyed that the writers felt the need to simply state the subtext the film had spent the whole movie addressing, but then I remembered that this was a kid’s movie, so I’ll let it slide.
The script is less successful in its attempts to construct a proper narrative, instead opting for a series of cartoon-esque vignettes. It occasionally felt like I was watching a children’s animated programme, the ones in which a half-hour episode is divided into two short stories, except writ large with a bunch more than two. These little episodes are all perfectly enjoyable by themselves but when strung together as a film, they begin to drag and do damage to the movie’s pacing. Indeed, that’s the movie’s biggest issue: it’s pacing. It feels a lot longer than it really is, and as the film wears on, it becomes less and less easy to overlook that fact.
The animation of the movie is fantastic, somehow translating the distinctly two dimensional art of the comic strip into a three dimensional environment without losing its unique look and distinct personality. It looks great, like the comic come to life, and the animators do a great job using the odd visual flourish (a line of z’s appearing above a sleeping character’s forehead for example) to wink at the source material.
The Peanuts Movie is exactly what is says on the tin. It’s a Peanuts movie. It’s actually pretty remarkable how completely the filmmakers have translated the classic comic strip to the big screen, nailing the visual style and the distinctly literate sense of humour the source material was so well known for. However, in that translation it has also retained the self-contained scenarios of its basis and while they all work wonderfully on an individual level, they aren’t conducive to offering a neatly paced, tightly constructed story. That said, The Peanuts Movie is wonderful, a sweet picture with a ton of hidden meaning and a very distinct character that should impress both children and adults alike.