There’s a scene in Charade when Audrey Hepburn’s character tells Cary Grant, “You know what’s wrong with you? Nothing.” That’s a perfect summation of how The Peanuts Movie updates the famous comic strip by Charles M. Schulz for modern audiences by changing nearly nothing about it. The execution of The Peanuts Movie is a perfect demonstration of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” nicely translating the best qualities of the comic strip to big-screen CGI with wit and seemingly endless reserves of charm. When too many modern animated kids films seem to be in an arms race to be faster paced and force in the most humor based on bodily functions, The Peanuts Movie is refreshingly retro in taking its time and refusing to compromise on the humanistic qualities that have ensured the strip and its characters have stayed perennial favorites over the decades.
As always, The Peanuts Movie is about the perpetual loser Charlie Brown: a kid who can’t keep a kite in the air, can’t win a baseball game, and can’t ever seem to win for trying. Like most other Peanuts TV specials and movies, The Peanuts Movie is structured as a series of shorter vignettes; unlike those earlier productions, The Peanuts Movie successfully threads a single overarching plot line through almost the entire film, centering on Charlie Brown’s efforts to be noticed by the pretty Little Red Haired Girl who has just moved to the neighborhood. The plot throws several opportunities for Charlie Brown to try to impress her, all of which end in pretty spectacular failures despite his best efforts and the help of his faithful dog Snoopy. Two of these failures are especially poignant: one horrible accident manages to be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time (curse you, Red Baron!), while the other presents Charlie Brown with a major crisis of conscience with a high social cost for doing the right thing. These two incidents are perhaps emblematic of how The Peanuts Movie can manage to make us laugh with gentle good humor while also letting us commiserate with Charlie Brown’s defeats. While failure is always a reliable engine for humor, Charles Schulz never made Charlie Brown the butt of the joke and The Peanuts Movie repeats the same trick. We may laugh at his failures, but we are never laughing at him because it is so easy to recognize how he is us.
Like the original TV specials and movies, The Peanuts Movie will happily suspend its main plot for extended antics by Snoopy and Woodstock, which would be disruptive if these sequences weren’t so entertaining. I am deeply impressed with the way the film manages to tie Snoopy’s aspirations to be a writer and his dreams of being a World War I Flying Ace, while also figuring out a way to let him keep his typewriter instead of trying to give him something more up-to-date. His WWI adventures also provide the movie’s most impressive set pieces, letting the movie escape its relatively limited suburban settings for the lush French countryside and a big, climactic aerial battle with the Red Baron over Paris. I am even impressed at how the movie manages to introduce the Red Baron to the audience and hinge a big plot point around him, which in turn fleshes out Snoopy’s relationship to Charlie Brown. It’s a subtle point, but his WWI Flying Ace vendetta against the Red Baron becomes personal for a few different reasons, some reflected in the real world and some from Snoopy’s vivid imagination. It’s one of many beautifully subtle structures that give The Peanuts Movie a bit more connective tissue than the original Peanuts animated works. As much as I love the WWI Flying Ace sequences in something like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, they really don’t serve the overall narrative. Those structures and the many others just visible under the surface allow The Peanuts Movie to tie everything together for its heartwarming conclusion, even if this ending may give Charlie Brown an uncharacteristically unambiguous victory. However, after watching him suffer for over an hour, it is remarkably rewarding to let this perpetual loser have just that one moment in the sun.
The Peanuts Movie also honors the original animated productions by casting children for the characters, and the talent recruited for the movie ensures that they can deliver some surprisingly sophisticated dialogue the way an actual child would. Noah Schnapp has to carry most of the film as Charlie Brown and acquits himself wonderfully, and the best thing I can say about the rest of the voice cast is that they all echo the iconic performances in A Charlie Brown Christmas (including Trombone Shorty’s re-creation of the “wah-wah” adult voices). In those original animated specials, Snoopy’s vocalizations were provided by the late great Bill Melendez, and The Peanuts Movie chooses to recycle his performances for this movie in the same way that Disney recycled Walt Disney’s voice as Mickey Mouse for the “Get a Horse!” short. I’m a bit mixed on that particular creative decision; while Snoopy’s laughs, groans, and growls are as iconic as anything else from Peanuts, I think there are a number of talented voiceover actors working today who could have provided a new performance that still channeled Snoopy correctly. The movie also echoes the original animated specials by re-using many of the original Vince Guaraldi Peanuts jazz soundtrack, which is an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” no-brainer decision. The additional musical cues by composer Christophe Beck fit in nicely with the original music, while singer Meghan Trainor contributes the sonically addictive “Better When I’m Dancin'” for a lovely montage sequence where Charlie Brown works on some fancy footwork to impress the Little Red Haired Girl.
As one would expect, The Peanuts Movie gets a wonderful audio and video presentation on Blu-ray disc. The high-definition beautifully renders the movie’s bright colors and subtle textures, like characters’ hair and Snoopy’s fur, and the image is sharp enough to catch a lot of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes, like the text of the school newspaper the day after the talent show and the full list of test results (where you learn everyone’s last name and can even catch a reference to the obscure Peanuts character “5”). The Blu-ray comes with a very satisfying set of bonus features as well, with the highlight being the half-hour making-of featurette “You’ll Never Grow Up Charlie Brown.” While the featurette is relatively short, it covers a lot of ground in surprising depth, ranging from observations about Peanuts and its creator to details on the creative decisions behind translating the comic strip to CGI. I’m impressed at their attention to detail, even if I am also left wondering whether it was the best use of time, energy, and money to use cutting-edge computer technology to accurately simulate hand-drawn animation that was always produced on a really tight budget. While the ship has already sailed, it seems like making The Peanuts Movie as a hand-drawn animated feature would have accomplished the creative goals with a lot less effort, even if some of the bigger Snoopy sequences would have lost some of their sense of scale.
The rest of the bonus features are shorter, but a lot of fun. “Snoopy’s Sibling Salute” is a brief look at the famous beagle’s siblings from the comic strip, all of whom make a cameo appearance at the end of the movie. Six “Snoopy Snippets” are quick and thoroughly amusing animated shorts. Meghan Trainor’s “Better When I’m Dancin'” gets a music-and-lyrics video along with a look behind the scenes of the live-action music video. I’m a bit puzzled why the latter is included when the actual music video isn’t, but at least YouTube is willing to be the new MTV. A “Get Down with Snoopy and Woodstock” music video comes dangerously close to the kind of update-for-modern-sensibilities that would have sunk the movie as a whole; while I like the mild acid jazz remix of the classic “Linus and Lucy” theme, the modern urban colloquialisms don’t fit as well. Three brief featurettes allow director Steve Martino to teach kids how to draw Snoopy, Woodstock, and Charlie Brown, while “Snoopy’s Playlist” lets you jump straight to the musical moments in the movie. All the movie’s original trailers are included, which is a home video bonus feature that I always appreciate and hope is making a comeback. The combo pack includes a DVD and your choice of an iTunes or UltraViolet digital copy, and the current gift set release packs in a small Snoopy World War I Flying Ace plush doll (which my son immediately appropriated).
I suppose it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that The Peanuts Movie was so successful at bringing Charles Schulz’s vision to the big screen, since a lot of the same people were behind the excellent hand-drawn direct-to-video feature Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, which should definitely be next on the playlists for any fans seeking a follow-up to this movie (especially given Jean Schulz’s firm insistence not to do a sequel for a few years and allow Peanuts to “go Hollywood” — a stance that makes me appreciate her even more as the steward of her late husband’s legacy). On one level, there isn’t anything terribly new to The Peanuts Movie, but on another level I think that’s less a criticism of the movie and more a reflection of why the strip and the characters have endured for such a very long time. While it may not have the depth of A Charlie Brown Christmas, or even specials like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, The Peanuts Movie is endlessly warm, funny, and charming. You know what’s really wrong with it? Nothing.