The Peanuts Movie and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steve Martino
At the very least, this movie couldn’t have asked for a better time to come out. Jem and the Holograms bombed both financially and critically only a month ago, so this being the next adaptation of a beloved franchise aimed at children is going to have some favorable comparisons. Still, even early on there was a lot to look forward to here. Once they revealed the artwork and animation style that would be used to bring this classic series to life, it got people very excited at the prospect of another Peanuts movie. Does this manage to live up to the expectations that the trailers gave us, or will this be yet another failed attempt to capitalize on a well-known brand? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about that eternally put upon optimist, Charlie “Good Grief” Brown! It’s not an origin story so this is taking place at pretty much any time in the continuity where everyone is well aware of Charlie Brown and what a boob he is. In fact, it’s being going on so long that the prospect of a new kid moving to town fills him with joy due to the fact that he finally has a chance to make a good impression on someone before they find out what a loser he is. The new kid in question is the Little Red-Haired Girl who he ends up falling head of heels in love with immediately but this also adds much more anxiety to his already anxious and downtrodden existence. He’s certain that the moment he opens his mouth to her that he’ll reveal himself as a dud so he resolves to make himself a better person beforehand! Can Charlie Brown reach his self-improvement goals before the end of the school year? Will he ever build up the confidence to talk to the girl of his dreams? Wait, isn’t this the same plot as The 40-Year-Old Virgin?
This is a solid adaptation of the original source material which on its own is already very good. I’m not the biggest Peanuts fan in the world but I appreciate its place in popular culture and can recognize this as a spot on adaptation of that source material. I guess my only real problems with this have to do with how accurate of an adaptation it is. From the storyline to even the pacing of the film, it feels less like an actual movie and more like an animated version of the comic strips. For huge fans of the original strips and the original cartoons, this may be exactly what they wanted. For me who’s more of a minor fan (I have at least one of the Peanuts books), I felt that it could have reached a bit higher.
The story has a simple overarching story which is Charlie Brown’s determination to talk to the figuratively (not literally) iconic Little Red-Haired Girl. I say figuratively because despite her appearing a couple of times in the animated specials, she never appeared in Shultz’s original strips as it wasn’t really the point for her to have a real presence in their world. Her role has always been to be a symbol of unrequited love for our favorite sad sack and she basically serves the same purpose here. She’s more of a plot device than anything else and her purpose is to spur Charlie Brown to do his best to get over his myriad of faults so that he can be worthy of her affection. It’s a good enough set up as any for the cavalcade of set pieces in which Charlie tries to learn to dance, learn magic tricks, complete a book report on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and other shenanigans that he gets up to over the course of the running time. It’s all leading to a powerful and (classic Peanuts) theme about perseverance and recognizing your accomplishments even if you don’t reach the desired goal. I just wish that it didn’t feel so… well episodic. Each one of these mini-quests are short and don’t really tie into each other. The lessons he learned when trying to dance or helping his sister out at the talent show don’t inform his decisions when he decides to write the book report or finds out he got the highest grade on the test. Granted that each of these bite sized chunks are fantastic on their own and completely enjoyable (the conclusion to the test story arc is absolutely perfect) but despite being in a theater, it doesn’t feel like it was paced out to be a movie. It’s like one of those REALLY awful straight to video Disney sequels which are basically three tied together episodes strung along by a weak framing device, the difference being that while those were the worst things imaginable, this is very nearly a great film (and it doesn’t have a framing device).
Similarly, Snoopy and his side story are on their own pretty entertaining, but also feel like filler. When he’s helping Charlie Brown with his quest for self-improvement, it’s very spot on and is really the emotional center of this movie. Snoopy and Charlie Brown have a great relationship here and it’s heartwarming whenever the two are together, even if the micro-stories they’re a part of are over too quickly. However, he also has his own thing going on where he’s writing a Red Baron novel and we get to see that play out in extended action sequences. These are fine and have enough sweeping cinematography to create some genuine thrills, but they’re completely disconnected from whatever it is that Charlie Brown is working towards. It’s like we’re changing channels between a really good dramedy and a pretty good action film. I didn’t find these scenes as compelling as Charlie Brown’s journey, but I guess that part of the film was coming up short and at least the padding here was entertaining.
Really, that’s about it for the flaws and even those aren’t that big. Movies don’t always have to compulsively follow the three act structure, and there are some real classics out there that eschew that type of storytelling. I don’t think this is a RADICAL departure from it (there’s still an overarching story) but it is enough for it to be noticeable and that might end up bothering some people like it did me. Other than that, the story is well told in each of its pieces, and the animation is polished to a shine. They really captured the look that Charles Schulz spent decades developing and brought it to life in a way that CG often fails to do. Hell, this is so good looking at some points that I’m not even sure it’s completely CG and that some this stuff isn’t extremely elaborate puppet work. It’s also a plus that there aren’t any big name stars in here hamming it up and as far as I can tell, everyone in here is a young kid who may have acted in the past but isn’t a huge name at this point. They didn’t get kids who CAN’T act, but it still manages to lend a sense of authenticity here that could have been undercut if Charlie Brown was voiced by Patrick Warburton or something.
So what can we learn from this? Well the filmmakers definitely had a “If it’s not broke don’t fix it” approach to the movie and made the best damn Peanuts movie they could that was exactly like the original strips and animated features. There’s SOME modernization here and there (the look of everything and the quicker pace to the jokes), but this is an accurate adaptation on the level of Sin City or pretty much any Marvel movie. If that’s what you’re looking for, then that’s exactly what you will get. No more, no less. For me though, I kind of wish they took a bit more chances. The setting is the same, the art style is the same, the story feels ripped right out of the strips, and they do a lot of the jokes and sight gags you would expect. It’s a bit like the story of the chef who spent millions of dollars to recreate a Big Mac, only in this case I wouldn’t use that specific entree. So much love, effort, talent, and money going in to recreate something note for note. I would have liked to see a bit more out of this and for it to take some more chances, but it’s hard to argue when they made something that so perfectly captures what is already one of the most beloved properties of all time. Maybe if they do a sequel they can stretch their wings a bit, but for now this is definitely one of the best animated films of the year and has a hell of a lot of heart. Even if it’s nothing new, it definitely gets a big recommendation from me.
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