Pretty much the soulless, uninventive update I was dreading, The Peanuts Movie replaces the tentative melancholy of Charles Schulz’s work with a relentlessly upbeat, good-guys-finish-first moral. Sure, such a lesson is to be expected in most G-rated fare, but to introduce it into Peanuts changes the fundamental nature of Charlie Brown as a character. Not that good ol’ Chuck represents the deepest and most haunted of literary protagonists, but at least the comic strips (and, to a lesser degree, the TV specials) reinforce that Charlie Brown isn’t the perpetual lovable loser—he’s mostly just a loser.
Here, though, Chuck is given a series of goals he needs to reach to win the love of The Little Red-Headed Girl, all of which he meets due to underlying fortitude and inherent goodness. Sure, shitty luck intervenes to foil his plans, but the point is clear. Charlie Brown’s ineptitude is never his fault; rather, events transpire against him to keep him down. Where Schulz’s original creation was a kid who regularly faces defeat brought on by the universal awkwardness and inadequacies of simply being a child, here Charlie Brown becomes just another heroic underdog who’s sure to succeed if he tries hard enough and always does the right thing.
The script, written by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson (Craig and Bryan Schulz, respectively), settles on recycling the more positive themes and tropes from previous Peanuts specials, tossing in a few tweaks to old material to make the film accessible to new audiences. Not that they’re entirely successful: the plot of The Peanuts Movie proved bewildering to my four-year-old, who could never quite figure out exactly why every fifteen minutes or so this romance between Charlie Brown and The Little Red-Headed Girl turns into a movie about World War I dogfights against the Red Baron. She liked the Snoopy scenes—far more than the main plot, as it turns out—but her astute little four-year-old mind seemed to grasp the inherent narrative flaws coming from the disjointed structure of the film: it was more like three episodes of a new TV series pieced together with Sopwith Camel interstitials. (Okay, yeah, I’m projecting a little here, but my kid grew noticeably more interested in the theater itself than anything onscreen during the non-Snoopy sections.)
God, now I feel like the asshole picking apart a beloved children’s property for not being the quaint, romanticized version I remember. And, to stave off this curmudgeon-ish tone, I can list a couple things this renovated version of Schulz’s creations gets right. The look, for one, is intriguing, since the filmmakers decide to base the aesthetic of their $100 million budget 3D CGI film on low-fi stop-motion animation. Most of the characters and items onscreen appear to be composed of actual objects—clouds look like stretched cotton balls, Snoopy’s fur has the texture of a piece of felt—and the characters’ movements are often herky-jerky and crude. This throwback style gives the film a welcome link to its predecessors—we aren’t suddenly introduced to a smoothly rendered, motion-captured Charlie Brown bullet-timing his way through a digital wonderland.
Plus, the opening sequence contains a genuine sweetness that strikes a surprisingly resonant note, the way it captures the joy of the childhood snow day (or what I assume is the joy of the childhood snow day—I grew up in South Georgia), how the movie introduces Charlie Brown as the kid who brings a kite to a hockey game, the slow build to Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy”. It’s a wonderful beginning to the film, enough to make me wish that The Peanuts Movie was a short consisting of that single scene. Hell, it would certainly make a better opener to a feature than the unintelligible, aneurysm-inducing Ice Age short tacked on to the front of Peanuts.
But, despite the occasional bright spot, mostly The Peanuts Movie plays out like a sweet-natured but dreadfully dull rehash of cartoons that weren’t in dire need of updating in the first place. (My daughter and her friends have no trouble sitting rapt and happy through It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Yet the biggest issue proves much more troubling: The Peanuts Movie refutes the traits that made Peanuts such a profound, honest depiction of youth. I, like many others, found solace in Charlie Brown’s failures; he represented defeat and loss, everyday aspects of a kid’s life too often swept under the rug by idealized portrayals of childhood. The Peanuts Movie takes that from him. He’s no longer the average kid struggling to make headway in an often complicated, disappointing world—he’s the underdog hero guaranteed to eventually come out on top.
I’ll put it this way: in the classic Happy New Year, Charlie Brown!, good ol’ Chuck is required by his teacher to write a book report on Tolstoy’s War and Peace over his winter vacation. Charlie Brown is utterly incapable of getting through the massive tome, and this sense of failure is exacerbated by his futile bid to woo The Little Red-Haired Girl in time for the Peppermint Patty’s New Year’s Dance. In the end, he doesn’t read the book, makes a D-minus on the report, and Linus dances with his beloved. The story ends a total debacle for Chuck. It’s a brilliantly morose and insightful look at the frustrations of simply not having the ability to succeed, of not getting what you so desperately want. Of being a kid, in other words. It’s honest. It’s great.
In The Peanuts Movie, when a similar situation arises, (spoilers, if you care, and why should you) Charlie Brown verges on the superhuman: he reads War and Peace in a weekend, writes an astute literary analysis, and impresses The Little Red-Haired Girl with his will and devotion to his task. Sure, he fails in the end—his report gets destroyed by an errant model plane (sigh)—but this failure isn’t his fault. It’s a whim of fate. A fluke. Charlie Brown stands as the dogged (no pun intended) protagonist foiled by bad luck, not inadequacy. And that’s The Peanuts Movie in a nutshell: super-powered, bound for success, and utterly clueless as to the genuine, pensive pessimism that made Charles Schulz’s work such a legendary commentary on childhood.