The key to enjoying The Peanuts Movie is tempered expectations. When Charles Schulz’s milestone comic strip first premiered in the papers back in October of 1950, nobody could have possibly predicted the meteoric impact his work would have on both his medium and on popular culture at large. Calling Peanuts “influential” doesn’t quite cut it: Schulz’s comic is the once-in-a-lifetime kind of pop art that shapes genres and generations alike. Can The Peanuts Movie live up to that level of reputation? For many, Peanuts’ massive success and long-lasting legacy will loom over The Peanuts Movie like the shadow of the kite-eating tree, but the good news is they don’t have to.
Like father, like sons. The Peanuts Movie is the imaginative product of Charles, his son Craig, and Craig’s son Bryan, the latter two of whom helped write the film’s screenplay with scribe Cornelius Uliano. For their ringmaster they’ve chosen Steve Martino, co-director on two previous Blue Sky Studios efforts, 2008’s Horton Hears a Who! and 2012’s Ice Age: Continental Drift. That reads like a recipe for middle-of-the-road children’s fare: Blue Sky makes adequate movies with adequate flair, seasoned just enough to stave off blandness and hold a theater full of kids in their thrall and give their parents 90 minutes’ respite.
Somehow, The Peanuts Movie adds up to more than just distraction. Maybe it’s the involvement of the Schulzes, who have demonstrable skin in the Peanuts adaptation game. Maybe it’s Charles himself, who infused his characters with such immensity of spirit that they’ve spoken meaningfully to audiences for 65 years. Either way, The Peanuts Movie works, not just as a yarn about Charlie Brown and his bungling attempts to win the love of the nameless, redheaded new girl in his class, but as an example of 3D animation that defies its own boundaries. Yes, the film hews close to convention by lazily hucking random objects at the screen to dazzle viewers with minimal effort. But when it’s not busy staging obvious 3D-dependent sight gags, it’s focused on making the 3D look 2D. The visuals have texture. The characters move and emote with a snappiness that reads more like cell-shaded animation than 3D animation. Snoopy’s flights of fancy, where he engages in dogfights with the Red Baron, are every bit as spectacular as the most high-budget summer tent pole fare.
But The Peanuts Movie’s audience is chiefly comprised of tykes who will eat up the cheap 3D tomfoolery and who don’t know a damn thing about motion blur. What they’ll respond to instead is how much the film identifies with them. There are sure to be adults who buy tickets to exercise their nostalgia, of course, but The Peanuts Movie is aimed at children first and grown-ups second: The team has cast a troupe of child actors to give voice to Charlie et al. rather than fill out each role with twentysomething celebrities speaking at several octaves higher than normal. It’s a refreshingly simple gesture that gives the whole affair a sense of authenticity. What young boys and girls lack in sophistication they more than make up for with innate bullshit detection, and above all else, The Peanuts Movie refuses to bullshit its primary demographic. It’s honest, and honestly touching, amusement.
Put simply, there’s a lot here to like. It’s just too bad that nobody bothered to say “enough” at any point in the creative process. The Peanuts Movie is about 10 minutes too long, and could have done with one less instance of Charlie Brown screwing up in his bid to attract his lady love’s affections; it also features maybe a tad too much Snoopy, which is weird considering that Snoopy is the film’s best surviving connection to the Peanuts canon. (Archived recordings of the late Bill Melendez are used to supply Snoopy and Woodstock’s vocal tracks.) Essentially Martino and the Schulzes have churned out a quartet of Peanuts shorts and stitched them together while maintaining a steady through line. They’ve spread too little seven-minute frosting over too much angel-food cake, but the narrative coherency is admirable.
And so too is the film’s outsized heart. Whatever problems The Peanuts Movie has, it’s a genuine, sweet, very funny picture that’s better than it reasonably has any right to be. The film won’t redefine the contemporary entertainment landscape or modern animated aesthetics, though it might convince a few 3D illustrators to try out new techniques in the pursuit of their craft. (It’s hard to overemphasize how much of a visual treat this picture is.) What it will do is introduce today’s young ’uns to characters they can relate to without forcing the connection. Schulz’s creation endures because from Charlie to Lucy, Linus to Sally, Peppermint Patty to Franklin, the Peanuts reflect who we are, no matter the year or the time. The Peanuts Movie gets that, and it’s all the richer for it.
Director: Steve Martino
Writers: Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz, Cornelius Uliano
Starring: Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Alexander Garfin, Francesca Capaldi, Bill Melendez (archival)
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.