Tony joins the gang.
The challenge for a 2015 Peanuts movie was always going to be one of balance. Balance between the enormous history and legacy of the Peanuts comic-strips and cartoon movies, and the need to appeal to a modern young audience, to both still absolutely be the Peanuts the parents in the audience remember, and appeal to the generation of smartphone-enabled, web-savvy kids of the twenty-first century, without overegging the pudding.
For a movie so steeped in tradition, it has some pretty hefty expectations to meet – it’s the first full-length Peanuts film in 35 years, and it also marks the 65th anniversary of the original comic-strips, and the 50th anniversary of the classic Peanuts TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. So – no pressure, Charlie Brown.
The joy of Peanuts is that while it is set in a circumstantial world where kids had to mostly make their own amusement – no games consoles, no social networks (except the hardware-based ones called ‘gangs’), no smartphones etc – really speaking, it’s a comic-book world based on personalities and characters. The trappings of the world – the boxcarts, the kites, the baseball games and school projects – are just tools to show us the characters of the Peanuts gang. Charlie Brown the eternal ‘tryer,’ Schroeder the obsessive genius, Lucy the arch-realist and trainee neurotic, Linus the eternally comforted philosopher, Peppermint Patty the sports fiend, with Marcy, her academically clever friend and sometimes drudge. Sally Brown, the font of unerring self-belief, the very opposite of her big brother’s constant self-doubt. You could put these archetypes in any time and place and they’d still be the Peanuts gang. The reason it’s important to older generations of fans that certain niceties of balance are maintained is because there’s a comfort in knowing where and when you are.
Really, you can relax now.
Fortunately, both love and care have gone into this movie. For one thing, it has both the son and grandson of Charles Shulz, the original brain behind the Peanuts phenomenon, on board. For another, it has Paul Feig on board as producer too, and he has a solid track record of creating movies with heart and a sense of fun. And for a third, even with expectations so high, you don’t actually need to do a lot in 2015 to get Peanuts right – all the really hard creative work was done for you over six decades ago.
There are things you have to include – It was a dark and stormy night, Snoopy the flying ace, Joe Cool, Schroeder and Lucy, Linus and his comfort blanket, Peppermint Patty innocently landing Charlie Brown with a conundrum and having expectations of him, Charlie Brown trying his very best, and failing, and working himself up into a state of nervous exhaustion, and probably failing again. Then add just a smidgen of redemption, of hope at the end, a little bit of light to make everything seem alright and you’re pretty much there.
Oh and the football. It wouldn’t be a Peanuts movie without Charlie Brown, Lucy and the football.
All of this is very definitely in The Peanuts Movie, along with a whole other raft of minor notes you might not have remembered, but which make you smile when they’re checked off – adults speaking through the voice of a trombone, Marcy’s deadpan intellectualism, Lucy being grossed out when Snoopy kisses her, the Great Pumpkin (All Hail the Great Pumpkin!), a Peanuts Gang dancing scene, Snoopy’s relatives and more.
But The Peanuts Movie covers itself in terms of interesting a new young audience too, by perhaps advancing one of the greatest unrequited love stories of the age. Step forward the little red-haired girl, who perhaps controversially, moves in across the street from Charlie Brown in this movie (allowing any geeks with the desperate urge to do so the opportunity to place the movie in the Peanuts chronology). Charlie Brown is utterly smitten, and there, right there is your modern storytelling angle – the awkwardness, the anguish, the wonder and the fear of first love, as Charlie Brown, who feels he is invisible and good at nothing, but never stops trying anyway, tries to get the little red-haired girl to notice him in a positive light. The movie carries the precise notes that Schulz always insisted on – for the most part there’s a lack of sentimentality about the heartbreaking failures Charlie Brown encounters – whether it be a plan to shine at the school talent show, a scheme to burn up the dance contest and so win a dance with the hot-footed redhead, an attempt to prove himself academically, or a simple gesture of kindness, Fate intervenes to bring all his hopes to nothing, and leave him frequently a laughing stock, in his own eyes at least.
There’s an ending which sweetens all this, and in fact, it’s the ending that you might take issue with as possibly over-sugar-coated, but probably only if you’re an extra-specially practiced Grinch. Most viewers will watch The Peanuts Movie and have their heart warmed, in much the same way as It’s A Wonderful Life achieves – in fact, there are distinct similarities between Charlie Brown and George Bailey: they both see themselves as losers, against whom fate and the lives of others have conspired to deny them their heart’s desires. So when the end comes, and Charlie Brown gets a sense of understanding that ‘Good Old Charlie Brown’ is not nearly the loser he’s thought himself, it’s a revelation that, while not causing him to run through the town like a loon, wishing everybody merry Christmas, does at least manage to put a big, big smile on his usually worried face.
In a movie subtitled Charlie Brown and Snoopy, it would be remiss to focus only on the human half of the Peanuts equation though. Snoopy here acts as a great avatar of Charlie Brown’s journey of love, giving us the parallel story of the flying ace and his quest to win the heart of the beautiful aviatrix, Fifi, against the evil machinations of the dastardly Red Baron. Where Charlie Brown’s experiences are all in the real world, Snoopy is our window into the surrealist side of Schulz’ comedy, the simple honest terror of a boy who likes a girl but is terrified to ring her doorbell or speak to her transmuted through Snoopy’s imagination into a grand passion between world-saving flying heroes. Dog and boy show us both sides of the experience that is first love – the crippling fear and determination to do anything to be noticed (while simultaneously being terrified of being noticed), and the wild, fantastical exciting possibility of which love makes us dream, that the most perfect person in the world might think we’re perfect too. There’s a style to some of Snoopy’s antics here that we’d say was reminiscent of Wallace and most particularly Gromit, if Peanuts didn’t predate them by several decades.
So the story’s there, told from two perspectives, one realistic, one fanciful; the traditional Peanuts magic is there, for everyone looking for it. Time to say just a word or two about the production. While you’ll have seen the new computer-generated versions of the Peanuts gang, what hits you is how easily this movie fits into the long history of on-screen Peanuts, and in fact into the comic-strip versions that pre-dated them. Both in terms of its visuals and its voices, despite being all new and cutting edge and up-to-the-minute, this feels absolutely like a continuation of the tradition begun with A Charlie Brown Christmas. What especially helps that feeling is a lack of fear and a respect – occasionally, when for instance Charlie Brown thinks back over his past misadventures, they’re rendered as black and white pencil drawings in his head, and in other scenes, including an ice hockey sequence and a couple of collisions, you’ll catch old-style animation elements on top of the cutting-edge stuff, giving that sense of respect and continuity with the old movies. There’s even that sense in the very first scene and the very last scene of the movie, the first a drawing of a comic-strip box in which to set the adventure that’s about to unfold, the last a fade from fully-rendered CGI to black and white line-drawn animation. And while there have been lots of voices for Charlie Brown and the gang, here they sound very much like the ones you remember. Oh – one final note to make you fall in love with the care they’ve taken to bring this movie to life: Snoopy and Woodstock are still voiced by veteran voice artist Bill Melendez, through the use of archive recording for that dead-on traditional feel.
Will The Peanuts Movie be a classic of 2016? Who can tell? As we write this, the year’s barely half a week old. Is it a classic Peanuts movie, fitting in with everything that’s come before but opening up the world of Peanuts to a new young audience? Absolutely.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk