There must have been an enormous temptation on the part of those in charge of THE PEANUTS MOVIE to exploit the advances in animation that have come to be standard since the last Peanuts film. We are all very lucky that they decided to serve the spirit of Charles Schultz’s comic strip instead. They are also serving the spirit of those classic television specials, too, and thereby serving the fans for whom both iterations claim a special place in their hearts. True, it’s in 3-D. True, the characters have a volume that was never before depicted. But the faces, with their expressions brought to life with echoes of those imperfections of their hand-drawn antecedents, have the unmistakable authenticity of the deceptively simple stories that sprang from Schultz’s mindset.
Told in the same episodic fashion of the strips and the specials, the through story is that of Charlie Brown, the woebegone everyman of the comic, experiencing the pangs and ecstasies of first love when the Little Red-Haired Girl moves in across the street from him. Unable to speak to her, of course, he turns for advice to acerbic and venal Lucy at her psychiatric booth, to the philosophically inclined Linus, and a self-help program that promises to reveal to him the 10 ways to be a winner. Nothing works, not even being assigned as her partner to do a book report over the holidays, though he does all the work for her when she is called out of town. Instead, Charlie Brown suffers paroxysms of self-doubt, a slew of moral quandaries, and thorny ethical dilemmas while dealing with the travails of his daily life and an uncomfortable bout of hero-hood.
Schultz’s son and grandson co-wrote wrote the story, and it relies heavily, but not slavishly, on Charles’ work. A group of children dancing reproduce a similar scene from the 1965 Christmas special; Charlie Brown’s beagle, Snoopy, is still using a typewriter while perched atop his dog house writing his epic novel, and the novel, which comes to life as part of Snoopy’s startlingly rich inner life, is an account of the World War I flying ace doing battle with the Red Baron first animated in the Halloween special. The more sophisticated animation makes for more thrilling aerial dogfights, but there is something even more wonderful when the character’s thought balloons are rendered in the simpler animation of those specials. Another welcome note is that the voice casting hearkens back to the original kids who spoke for the Peanuts gang for the first time, and finally finding out what Pigpen looks like under all that schmutz. Though rife with references, the story is an original one, witty and clever, but also recognizing and respecting the seriousness of childhood’s troubles, including the pitfalls of fountain pens, the maliciousness of kites, and the casual cruelty of children. That darkness lurks below the surface, but is ultimately trumped by Charlie Brown’s endless hope that things might, just maybe, get a little better.
If I had to nitpick, and I do, there is something off-putting about how Charlie Brown’s forelock has been brought into the third dimension. Instead of the simplicity of the loop-de-loop, it has taken on the sinister cast of an evil tree branch, perhaps from the fabled kite-eating tree. Never mind. Kids will love THE PEANUTS MOVIE for its humor. Adults will love it for that, and for its particular brand of sagacious whimsy that allows for life to be sad, but never hopeless, especially when there is a warm puppy to comfort you.