Friday, November 06, 2015

Review: THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2015)

NOTE: This review is possible in part through donations to The MovieBob Patreon.

First things first: Relax.

They didn't botch it. They didn't break it. They didn't screw it up. The Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus etc you'll be seeing up onscreen and/or introducing the next generation to are largely the same ones you grew up with; and they've arrived in a perfectly agreeable, modest, sweet little movie that should re-establish them as touchstones for another several decades to come. So if those were worries you'd been nursing about THE PEANUTS MOVIE, you can exhale: It's fine.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE is probably the first pop-culture "nostalgia revival" blockbuster in a good long while to face the (potential) hurdle of having to scale itself up to fit onto the big screen. Whereas other long-lived, mass-marketed intellectual properties like the Marvel movies or TRANSFORMERS land in development already dragging decades of mythology and narrative sprawl needing to be whittled down to manageable size for a feature film, Charles Schulz's PEANUTS is a gag-a-day newspaper comic strip built almost-exclusively around incidental observation that reached it's prior adaptation high-point in the form of 20-30 minute TV specials with prior attempts at movie-length adventures meeting a mixed reception.

The filmmakers solution to this problem, evidently, has been to eschew trying to "solve" it altogether: In lieu of trying to retrofit Charlie Brown's world into a space for feature-sized adventures, they've instead conceived a set of four individual mini-stories that feel very much of a kind to the classic TV specials the characters are arguably best known from, joined together by the relatively constrained scope of the action (school, the neighborhood and the individual kids' homes) and a narrative through-line about the ever-luckless Brown haphazardly trying to reinvent himself so that a new student (the enigmatic "Little Red-Haired Girl" of the comic-strip lore) might see him as something other than the "blockhead" everyone else has become accustomed to.

This kind of episodic storytelling, coupled with the gently-deliberate pacing that Schulz's world exudes as a matter of course, feels like something of a risk in an age of kids' movies where frenetic yet sprawling, plot-heavy quest narratives are the order of the day; but it pays off. The result is a quietly profound little gem that can't help but recall other classic child's-view-of-childhood vignettes like A CHRISTMAS STORY or Bradbury's DANDELION WINE. Rarefied company, yes, but well-earned - this might not be the best or most exciting children's movie of the year, but it's hard to imagine one more emotionally nutritious.

I'll admit: I was a little worried when the "Little Red Haired Girl" plot element reared it's head. Her function in the plot makes sense given her place in Peanuts canon, but in 2015 the last thing movies (especially movies aimed at the next-to-rise generation of little kids) need are more stories where a female character exists mainly for their affection to be a prize motivating the hero. Yes, LRHG gets a name and a face for this iteration, but she's still inhabiting the role of an out-of-reach ideal for Charlie Brown to strive for - not far removed from that football Lucy will never let him kick, come to think of it. He's effectively elected this person the arbiter of his own self-worth without asking if she has any interesting in that role, and the plot isn't terribly concerned with her agency or whom she might be beyond that.

So, yeah. That could be a bit (ugh) "problematic" in a modern context, but the specific context of the circumstances neutralize the issue almost immediately (or at least they did for me): These are very young kids, written and performed as such, and there's zero real sense of prurient interest at play in Charlie Brown's intentions (indeed, he's already decided that "the new kid" is a reason for him to fix himself before he knows anything else about him/her) or anyone else's. Yes, she's a (mostly-offscreen) metaphor for more powerful forces, much like the disembodied trombone-voiced adults or Snoopy's imagined Red Baron nemesis, but I'd say that's okay in a movie that has so many other rich and varied characters (male and female) otherwise.

More importantly, the story they're using this setup to tell works. Charlie Brown is uniquely defined as a pop-icon by the tragi-comic confluence of his innate goodness and the Universe's seeming utter disdain for him. Few characters have endured more martyrdom with less cause, and here he tries everything from flying a kite to a talent show to a school dance to a book report on "Leo's Toy Store by Warren Peace" to remake himself as... someone capable, basically, and is continually derailed either by his own selflessness (it's a wise stroke that we're made to understand that he's a fundamentally decent person every bit as much as a luckless one early one) or the cruel chaotic randomness of fate at every turn.

Yes, adults will see where this is all going a mile away: of course when this particular Job meets his "god" she'll have taken notice of his good intentions all along, and of course he'll come to understand that he was already worthwhile just as he is; but you know what? That's one of those lessons every new generation of kids could stand to learn as early and as often as possible, and who better to relay it to them than Good Ol' Charlie Brown?

And make no mistake: Despite the group-inclusive title, this is a Charlie Brown movie, through and through. The supporting Peanuts, though, get their room to shine. To a certain extent, the tertiary characters are the space where the film elects to go through its "greatest hits" catalog ("Dog germs!," Lucy's nickles, the stationary dance-cycles, the choral Christmas-carroling, etc), but what a catalog it is. The one spot where this begins to feel like a bit much are the Snoopy "WWI Flying Ace" fantasy-sequences that here do double-duty as act-breaks and showcases for more elaborate and 3D-friendly animation sequences. Don't get me wrong: These slapstick divergences are a PEANUTS staple, and this is the same method Blue Sky Studios perfected for keeping younger kids engaged with the suprisingly character/dialogue-heavy ICE AGE movies i.e. breaking up the more "serious" parts with cutaways to Scrat and his acorns. But they eventually run just a touch too long for my taste, relative to how much more invested I was in getting back to watching "Chuck" keep trying to kick that football.

On the other hand, what I will say for the story beats involving the other characters is that it was a huge relief to find a near-total lack of self-awareness or obvious pandering to the nostalgia set. Yes, when one of the classic Jazz tracks from the Halloween/Christmas specials kicks up on the soundtrack or the camera pans across the skating-pond or "The Wall" older fans are meant to smile or get a little misty-eyed (my near-Pavlovian response to hearing Linus casually mention The Great Pumpkin hit me with a force I imagine would've made the filmmaker's exchange satisfied high-fives) but if you've come for winking ROBOT CHICKEN-style asides to now-adult ground-floor fans about, say, Peppermint Patty and Marcie being "a thing" or whether or not Snoopy's angry unintelligible squawks at Lucy being something particularly "obscene," you won't find them here.

In fact, the lack of attention drawn to the fact that this even is a nostalgia-revival property is kind of remarkable. Even as I was appreciating the attention to detail in matching Schulz' original art-style and the unique limited-motion animation aesthetic of the cartoons (the 3D character-models are animated to look/feel more like embossed colorful stickers in stop-frame, with facial and motion-line details retaining a 2D line-art look), it took me until well after my initial viewing to realize how unusual it was that, despite no "time" being given for the setting, the characters are still using rotary phones, checking books out of libraries and otherwise existing in the same pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-iCulture world they're best remembered in.

That's almost-certainly a correct design choice (I shudder to think what a Charlie Brown with even less incentive to leave his room might be in 2015) but I'm strike by how effortless it feels where a lesser adaptation might've tried to hammer home some point about how much "better" childhood was under these circumstances. On the other hand, I look at scenes like an extended sequence where Snoopy and Woodstock try to negotiate a manual typewriter and I wonder if the youngest in the audience have any idea what that machine even is.

But those are minor quibbles, rendered barely worth a mention by how expertly the bulk of the film segues between the charming and the profound. THE PEANUTS MOVIE is a small, almost absurdly delicate thing in a world where even Dr. Seuss adaptations tend to become bloated, freewheeling pyrotechnic displays. But in it's own way it's an epic, understanding (in the way that only the very best movies about children and childhood do) how a "snow day" can feel like a miracle, how Summer can feel like a countdown, how time can compress and expand from fleeting the endless and back again between the seasons, or how things like a book report, a minor public embarrassment, the approval of a friend or the loyalty of a pet can be (if only for a moment) the most important thing in the world. It's a monument to that moment in time when the expanse between home, school and the playground was the breadth of the universe, and a reminder that there's a chance for even the chronically unlucky to be happy there - if only for that moment.

Hello again, Charlie Brown. And Snoopy. And all the rest. I missed you so much. Please don't stay away so long again.

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