'The Peanuts Movie'
It was inevitable that there would be a ‘Peanuts’ movie one day. Even though newspaper comic strips hardly hold the power and popularity they once did, those holiday specials still run every year like clockwork and bring all sorts of nostalgic fuzzies. Some major animation studio had to take on Charlie Brown and crew. There was too much money to be made not to do it.
That the project fell into the hands of the folks behind ‘Ice Age’ should have been a sign that things would inevitably go wrong. Oddly, however, the problem isn’t that the movie takes big, goofy, celebrity-voiced liberties with the source material and ruins it. No, the problem is that this ‘Peanuts’ feature is just a little too reverent and traditional.
Produced and co-written by two of Charles M. Schultz’s descendants (his son Craig and grandson Bryan), ‘The Peanuts Movie’ feels a little bit too much like one of the old 40-minute TV specials needlessly stretched out to feature length. After introducing the endlessly depressed Charlie Brown and all of his single-gimmick friends, the plot revolves around Charlie’s obsession with getting noticed by a new kid in school known only as “The Little Red-Haired Girl” who lacks even a single personality trait (or even facial features for most of the running time) to define her. Beyond that, there’s a similarly thin thread involving Snoopy’s ongoing doghouse dogfight with the Red Baron. That’s all there is to it, yet the movie is somehow 80 minutes long.
Given the vast cast of ‘Peanuts’ regulars that Schulz introduced and enshrined over the years, you’d think that the filmmakers might give Lucy, Pigpen and the gang some subplots. No, they’re merely a peanut gallery (zing!) for Charlie’s endless quest to impress. Sure, the inevitably sweet message about being yourself in the face of embarrassment is cute, just not nearly enough to support an episodic and endless 80-minute running time. This is really another 40-minute TV special, and would be a perfectly sweet (if undeniably slight) one at that length. However, it’s not a movie. As the thing drags on so long pretending to be one, it’s hard not to drift off, even as nostalgic adult. I can’t imagine how kids reared on Pixar and Marvel movies will respond.
Now, that’s not to say that ‘The Peanuts Movie’ should have featured a parade of pop hits and a character who teachers Charlie Brown how to embrace a millennial attitude. Obviously, that’d be a recipe for disaster of a different kind. The ‘Peanuts’ formula is simple, sweet and old-fashioned. The movie needed to represent those old ideals. However, it should have also explored the side characters beyond offhanded reaction shots and in-jokes. It also should have featured something resembling a plot worthy of 80 minutes of screen time (plus a lengthy 8-minute credit sequence to pad things out further).
I’m not even suggesting that the melancholic touches of the earliest 1950s strips needed to be present. That certainly would have made things more complex, but just wouldn’t fly in such mainstream animated family entertainment (aside from Pixar, perhaps). All I’m asking for is a movie that feels like a movie, rather than an overlong TV special. That’s what Charlie Brown deserved, though sadly not what he received.
At the very least, director Steve Martino and his team did some interesting things with the look of the film. Yes, the movie is a big glossy CGI product in 3D, but the character models are traditional and the animators even used the limited choppy movements and poses of the old TV specials. That’s pleasingly nostalgic and pretty as eye candy. Clearly, everyone involved in the project loved ‘Peanuts’ and didn’t want to spoil the delicate charms of that icon of Americana. However, they should have remembered that they were making a movie and tried to meet those demands as well.
‘The Peanuts Movie’ is simply too slight to inspire much passion or excitement. It’s a light homage, nothing more. For some folks, that might be enough. For anyone other than the most obsessive ‘Peanuts’ fanatic, it’s hard to imagine the little wisp of animation being particularly memorable or satisfying.