Thursday, December 3, 2015

REVIEW: "The Peanuts Movie" (2015)

About two years ago, news came out that a new animated film starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the “Peanuts” gang was being made by Blue Sky Studios (the animation team behind the Ice Age movies and Rio), and that it would be computer-animated. If your reactions to this news were anything like mine, it may have been something like, “Nooooooo! They cannot do that to ‘Peanuts’!” The late Charles Schultz’s classic characters have long been immortalized and best remembered in 50 years of comic strips and countless television specials (the 1965 Christmas special celebrates its 50th anniversary this month), as well as four feature films (from 1969-1980) and a stage musical. On the other hand, Hollywood has certainly had a poor track record when adapting cartoons or comics for the big screen in recent years, from Scooby-Doo to Garfield to Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs. So the very thought of seeing “Peanuts” in three-dimensional form seemed like another swan song. 

Fortunately—and surprisingly—the teaser trailer for The Peanuts Movie (released in the spring of 2014 during the release of Blue Sky’s Rio 2) proved those initial reactions wrong.

Yes, it would still be (and is) computer animated. But the essential look and personality of the characters from the comic strips, along with Vince Guaraldi’s timeless “Linus and Lucy” score, promised visual and visceral charm. A year-and-a-half later, the resulted film is, like that teaser trailer and those that followed it, charming and wonderful, not to mention G-rated. 

The script for the film was first written in 2006 by Schultz’s son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan, respectfully. Part of the reason was to renew interest in the comics and cartooning. Director Steve Martino (who did a nice job bringing Dr. Seuss’ classic story Horton Hears a Who! to the screen in 2008) led a dedicated team of animators, who all reportedly spent over a year studying the comic strips to translate the “hand-drawn warmth of Schultz’s artwork into the cool pixel-precision of CGI” (IMDb). Again, though it is computer-animated, the look of the characters is still there as it would appear on paper, with CGI pencil lines for such elements as eyebrows and big mouths, thought bubbles, and even dizzying effects. There’s also amazing attention to little details such as hair and clothes—one of the fun parts about looking at the film’s poster (above) with several characters sitting in a movie theater.

I was also delighted to see wonderful homages to the classic specials, from trombone sounds for adult voices, to the way the characters dance, to Lucy’s “psychiatric help” booth, and of course excerpts of Guaraldi’s music. Once again, child actors provide the voices for the characters. The lone adult voice heard in the film, unrecognizably, is that of Kristen Chenoweth (who voices the poodle Fifi), and old recycled recordings of Bill Melendez (who directed over 50 “Peanuts” television specials and films) as the voice of Snoopy and Woodstock are used for said characters. The cast and crew have faithfully done Schultz's legacy justice, while introducing it to a new generation.

(l-r) Franklin, Lucy, Snoopy, Linus, Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, and Sally
The story follows Charlie Brown as he struggles with feelings of inadequacy and failure. When a “Little Red-Haired Girl” moves into the neighborhood, he attempts to impress her, as well as his classmates, by proving that he’s a “winner” and not be just a “blockhead”. His attempts include a local talent show, a school dance (with catchy and kid-friendly Meghan Trainor music), and a book report (on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” reportedly Schultz’s favorite novel). At the same time, Snoopy has his own adventure (albeit, fantasy) as he, in his infamous “World War I Flying Ace” persona, chases down the dreaded “Red Baron” to save the girl dog he loves. 

This juxtaposition of fantasy and reality is part of what keeps children and adults in the audience engaged in the story, as well as in learning to accept people for who they are despite their supposed shortcomings. All of the characters were always cute and relatable to children, while their wit, occasional sarcasm and choice of grammar appeal to adults, from Lucy’s bossiness to Linus’s wisdom as well as reliance on his trusty blanket; from Peppermint Patty’s tomboyishness to Schroeder’s piano-playing skills and love of Beethoven; and from Snoopy’s silly antics to Charlie Brown’s determination, despite his self-described failings. 

And although some of the wit and sarcasm is missing in this feature film, in favor of a bit more kid-friendliness, the charm, humor, and sweetness is still there, as are the aforementioned personalities and qualities that define these characters and make them relatable and nostalgic. For one thing, it’s amusing and empathetic to see and remember the little things that made many of us nervous as children, such as talking to a girl or dancing in front of a group of people. We also continue to root for Charlie Brown not because he’s the greatest or the most popular, but because he doesn’t give up, and also because he ends up doing the hard-but-right thing and is commended for it. (Is it any wonder the stage musical was called “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”?) 

Whether you’re 5 or 95, this movie will fill you with joy. (You may want to stay through the credits for this one.)

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