Monday, November 16, 2015

The Peanuts Movie Review

As a lifelong aficionado of the the world of Charlie Brown (in a fit of gratuitous self-promotion, allow me to link to an essay I wrote over the comic in honors of its 50th anniversary), in theory, a 21st century theatrical feature based on these characters should be something I despise. No doubt such a film updates individuals like Lucy and Linus by giving them cell phones, Vine accounts and other necessities of modern day existence. But a remarkable amount of restraint is shown by the filmmakers responsible for The Peanuts Movie, with the feature refraining from up giving Snoopy a "Poochie" like update in favor of retaining his personality that has managed to work OK for 65 years now.

Yes, as someone who can pretty quote any Peanuts comic on cue and just as someone who enjoys partaking in quality cinema, The Peanuts Movie delivers in spades. Now, likely the biggest obstacle when one is trying to make a feature length production centered around the inhabitants of the world of Peanuts is trying to create a plotline that can sustain a feature length running time, with prior features struggling to hurdle this major impediment. The 1972 feature Snoopy, Come Home, for instance, has some great music courtesy of the legendary The Sherman Brothers and solid laughs, but it always felt like a bit of a slog in terms of pacing to me.

For The Peanuts Movie, writers Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz (yes, they're both related to Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz) and Cornelius Uliano seem to have taken some inspiration from The SpongeBob SquarePants movie when it comes to generating a conceit for their motion picture to stand on. Just as that absorbent 2004 feature utilized its plot as a way to examine the less grown-up psyche of its titular protagonist, The Peanuts Movie decides to have its lead, Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) attempt to come to terms with and overcome his inescapable penchant for losing in any given situation in order to impress a new student in his class, The Little Red-Haired Girl.

That's an interesting concept in theory, but the moment it was introduced early on into the movie, I became concerned that it would introduce a snarky, wink-wink, overtly meta attitude that wouldn't gel with the more tranquil atmosphere the film had established up to that point. Here's where another clever tactic of the screenplay comes flowing outward, as this particular story is used solely as a way to accentuate the perseverance that makes Charlie Brown such an absorbing character. No matter how much failure he endures, he's never ready to give up in his task. That's an irresistible character trait that shows how much The Peanuts Movie fundamentally understands not only the characters it's adapting, but how to make them work well in the storytelling confines of a feature film.

Something else also more than worth mentioning is the animation of this feature, which departs from the style of about 90% of American computer animation and go for a visual approach patterning itself after the classic animation specials. Turns out, the imagery of the likes of A Charlie Brown Christmas translates beautifully to the realm of computer animation. Movements of the characters pleasantly recalls stop-motion animation, while more realistic looking textures fit into the uniquely animated world perfectly. Seriously, major kudos to the animators at Blue Sky Studios for their work here, because this is one visually exemplary endeavor.

While most of the story takes place in everyday locales like an elementary school, Charlie Brown's home and on a lake, brief portions of the plot do deviate to larger scale environments whenever we dive into Snoopys flights of fantasy as a World War I flying ace. The more expansive locations that these sequences take in make for a great contrast to the more mundane places of reality, a nice visual cue emphasizing the escapism seeping into the beagles imagination. I do wish these parts of the movie thematically intertwined with Charlie Browns emotional predicaments, but even if they're glaringly inconsequential, at least these fleeting scenes have a fun temper to them.

Other entities from the 50 years of Charlie Brown comics pop up throughout the film, though their nicely the antithesis to "fan service" moments in films like Spectre and Star Trek Into Darkness, as nods to creations like Miss Othmar, the Kite-Eating Tree and Shermy noting how he was "the first to see [Charlie Brown]" come at the service of the plot, and not the other way around. That's good, because, really, even as a gigantic Peanuts connoisseur, I'd muuuuccchh rather have a high quality Peanuts film than a bunch of slipshod "references". And, hey, whaddya know, that's just what I got and more. The Peanuts Movie, thankfully, turns out to be more than just fan service or a cash-grab, instead serving as a sometimes appropriately bleak 90 minutes of bliss. Sound like a contradiction? Welcome to the wonderful world of Charlie Brown, where, just like in our own world, the harshness and beauty of life can sometimes be one and the same.

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