Cut & Print: The Peanuts Movie (2015)
I knew right away I had to see The Peanuts Movie. There was no question about it. I actually don’t see as many films in the theater as I’d like, and I usually opt to see films that I’m both interested in and will provide a fun theater experience. That means I’ll usually see the big blockbusters and am pickier about what dramas I see. Animated films – usually they can wait. Forever. I’m not a fan of a lot of fully-CGI animated films, having grown up in the heyday of the Disney Renaissance (the reasons why this is the case would be better left for another column). The last animated film I saw in the cinema – that I paid money and sat down in a theater to see as an adult – might be Wallace and Gromit and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and that did not disappoint. Now, I come to The Peanuts Movie.
There are very few franchises that have been more important to helping me become the person that I am than the Peanuts. Sure, both Star Trek and Star Wars are up there, but also important is the Peanuts comic strip. I learned how to read – and, really, how to think – reading the Peanuts comic strip. As a kid I was given these huge compilation books of Peanuts comic strips. I read them so much that books were torn and weathered. These books covered so much ground to that point, and I could see the characters develop through each strip and the story-lines that sometimes ran as long a seven strips or more. Charles Schulz was a brilliant writer and artist, and the main reason was that he created real characters. The children of the Peanuts strips were fully-developed people, and they each had a distinct personality, and a unique way of interacting with the other characters.
What Schulz did with these children was brilliant. Most of the children were about eight or nine, about that time when a child reaches that “age of wisdom” and they start thinking about the world around them and their place in it. Gone is the need for toys that simply stimulate immediate needs for bright colors and cool sounds, children of that age start to learn more from each other, and they start pondering a few deeper philosophical issues. And Schulz’s characters did that. While the strip was aimed at children who were about the same age of characters, he wasn’t afraid to be even more aim a bit higher than that; he wasn’t afraid to us ea word or idea that would be a bit above the reading level of his target audience. I remember a few examples: there was that one famous strip where Linus is watching Citizen Kane before his sister Lucy come sin and spoils the ending. Then there was that time when thieves broke into Snoopy’s dog-house and stole his van Gogh’s. I was really young when I read that story. I had no idea what a “van Gosh” was, and seeing the drawings (showing the back of the canvasses as they were brought out of the house) didn’t help. I didn’t ask my folks what it meant, eventually I learned on my own.
In the new film, Snoopy still has a Van Gogh painting stashed down there (in particular “Starry Night”) along with a few other treasures. Yes, he has an actual typewriter to jot down some cliched bits of fiction while under the watchful gaze of Woodstock. The message: the film gets it: it knows the original strip so well, it gets Peanuts so well. Thankfully, it saw no need to have the story take place in what would be today’s world; it instead makes the world of the characters a time that stands still. It saw no need to toss in modern references that modern children would understand. These kids don’t have cell phones or use Snapchat: they still have coil-corded landlines. They spend most of their time playing outside with all of the other kids.
While I’m not usually a fan of all-CGI animated films, all the character designs form the strip were kept intact, and the simple lines and dots that Schulz used remain the key to unlocking the complex emotions of these children It looks as if these kids jumped off the panels and into “reality” and I was pleased (I love how their imaginations create thought bubbles that look exactly like old panels from Schulz himself).
I loved just how they were able to incorporate 65 years of comic strips into a very good film, and a lot of memories were brought back to the surface. I smiled widely early on as Snoopy tried to grab Linus’ blanket, and was thinking wow it’s been a while since I read that strip. What’s more the voice casting (using unknown child actors, just like the old animated specials did) was pitch perfect. The kid that voiced Linus somehow sounded exactly like Linus sounded decades ago.
There were a few differences from the comic strip. Like any film which adapts its material form another source, some changes had to be made for the sake of a smoothly-moving narrative. For example, in the comic strips, Franklin, Peppermint Patty, and Marcie attended a different school from the other children, located across town, but they all go to the same school in the film. All the children seem to be in the same class despite the age differences. While I loved Snoopy’s adventurous dogfights with the Red Baron in this film, I think these flights of fancy were always a little darker in the strip and the old specials. Just watch Snoopy as he makes his way behind enemy lines in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Yet, for everything they changed, the filmmakers kept about a half dozen things exactly the same and got it exactly right. From the jazzy soundtrack to the “Wah Wah” muted trombones that make the voices of teachers and adults, to the name of the teacher that only the real fans would remember (Mrs. Othmar) they kept so much completely intact. Here’s a family film that would rather philosophize and ruminate than go for fart jokes or gross-out humor. Nearly every joke in this film came from who these characters are as people, which was always how Schulz approached the writing of Peanuts.
The plot? Like the comic strip itself works so well because of its simplicity and how it allows the characters to develop. On a snow day when the kids are all out, playing, the little red-haired girl moves in across the street. The film often presents Charlie Brown’s infatuation with her to be a mere crush, but it reminds us on occasion that there’s more to it than that. He wants her to judge him for who he is, and not for the reputation as a failure all the other kids have been given him. As this story moves along, it allows many ideas that originated in the strips to be played out here on that simple skeleton of a story.
Some critics have said that this movie isn’t bold or creative enough with the material, and that it plays out like a”greatest hits” of Peanuts comic strips. I’m so glad these critics weren’t writing this film. For sixty-years or more (with the strip still being reprinted every day in newspapers) the strip is just telling its story. Schultz never saw the need to shake up its story too much, and what made it appealing was its consistency. It’s important to remember that his comic strip wasn’t always about the humor. He had very few “jokes” in his comic strips, and only one out of every seven strips was actually laugh-out-loud funny. He felt it was more important to develop the characters; that way, when something funny did happen, the reader would care about the characters when it happened, and the gags would be all the funnier for it. The movie had the same sensibilities: all of the humor derived from who these characters were.
By the way, Peppermint Patty’s introduction did made me laugh, like, a lot.
My Rating: 4.5/5. My only wish was that there were a few more minutes where the film relaxed a bit so Linus and Charlie Brown could simply talk. Those moments were there, to be sure, and I was glad. But I was very pleased with the film and the message of the film was one that kids today will appreciate. This review was more like a reflection of how good the comic strip was, so I guess I’m just glad the film, by enlarge, “got” it.