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The Peanuts Movie Review

The Peanuts Movie (2015) movie poster The Peanuts Movie

Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015 / Running Time: 92 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Steve Martino / Writers: Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz, Cornelius Uliano (screenplay); Charles M. Schulz (comic strip)

Voice Cast: Noah Schnapp (Charlie Brown), Hadley Belle Miller (Lucy van Pelt), Mariel Sheets (Sally Brown), Alex Garfin (Linus van Pelt), Francesca Angelucci Capaldi (The Little Red-Haired Girl, Freida), Venus Omega Schultheis (Peppermint Patty), Rebecca Bloom (Marcie), Marleik "Mar Mar" Walker (Franklin), Noah Johnston (Schroeder), Madisyn Shipman (Violet), Anastasia Bredikhina (Patty), Micah Revelli (Little Kid), AJ Tecce (Pigpen), Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews (Miss Othmar, Mrs. Little Red-Haired Girl), Kristin Chenoweth (Fifi), Bill Melendez (Snoopy, Woodstock), William "Alex" Wunsch (Shermy)

 

Remakes, reboots, and sequels abound these days, but Hollywood isn't limiting themselves to past movies for inspiration. Franchises most identified with toys, comics, and television shows have all been tapped for feature film treatment, often to lucrative returns as things like Transformers,
Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Smurfs, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have all turned large profits even when the reviews haven't been too kind.

Still generating around $80 million in annual revenue fifteen years after creator Charles Schulz passed away, the Peanuts franchise was bound to spark film plans in this nostalgic age. The empire that began in 1950 with a comic strip and expanded in the 1960s to include some of the most beloved television specials of all time gets its rebirth today in The Peanuts Movie, a computer-animated production from Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the Ice Age and Rio series.

This new incarnation makes no secret of its reverence for the source material. Though transformed into the three-dimensionality of both animation and film, the visuals take their cues from Schulz's iconically simple style. Character design and movement stays true to tradition, with nothing greater than hair tint amiss. Even the new kids voicing these parts resemble the youngsters who briefly held those duties in decades past.

Charlie Brown and friends enjoy a snow day in "The Peanuts Movie."

Peanuts Movie does not take its name lightly, even adding "By Schulz" to the opening title screen, which may be a sly way of indicating that Charles' son Craig and grandson Bryan are two of the three credited screenwriters. The problem with staying true to the Peanuts of yore is that the franchise's universe does not lend itself well to feature film format, especially not in the ubiquitous mold of 21st century animated comedy that it's expected to fill here. The distance and disconnect between the creation and the format is apparent and troubling throughout.

The Peanuts Movie does not want to be episodic, but it is. It wants to give us a single narrative, but it stretches to do so. The main narrative involves Charlie Brown's characteristic lack of luck. The thinly-haired blockhead who has gotten a series of rocks while trick-or-treating, has a history of getting kites stuck in trees, and never fails to fall for the old "pull the football away at the last second" placekick hopes to reinvent himself when a new kid moves into his town. Briefly, he does just that when he scores a perfect 100 on a standardized test whose results are improbably posted in the school's hallway. Classmates look up to him and start dressing themselves in his signature zig zag yellow t-shirt. At an assembly held in his honor, Charlie Brown discovers this turn of events is too good to be true. And the movie returns us to its other storyline: Charlie Brown's quest to catch the eye of that new neighbor, the pretty red-haired girl that has eluded him in strips and specials past.

Recognizing that this crush storyline and Charlie Brown's reputation are too thin to carry the proceedings, the film repeatedly cuts away to Snoopy in his alter ego as the World War I Flying Ace (which I thought we all agreed was Peanuts at by far its most boring). He pursues a girl pilot named Fifi in a B-storyline that never meshes with the rest or grabs our attention.

Snoopy takes to the skies to do battle with his arch nemesis the Red Baron in "The Peanuts Movie."

I entered this film with an intimate knowledge of Peanuts animation, having reviewed dozens of specials, a couple of the feature films, and one of the two forgotten TV series on DVD. My love of Schulz's cartoons is not terribly steeped in nostalgia or the comic strips that inspired them.
I rediscovered A Charlie Brown Christmas in high school and from there went on to acquaint myself with the other esteemed holiday specials and their thematic DVD companions. The more Peanuts shows I have watched, the more I have come to realize that many of them are simple, pleasant diversions not begging to be remembered in detail or revisited regularly.

Blue Sky's take, arriving 35 years after the franchise's last theatrical outing, will not be mistaken for the other cartoons. But it also doesn't make a strong case to be remembered long or appreciated widely. It is a benign effort able to prompt occasional knowing chuckles from the grown-ups and little reaction from the youngsters by their side. Blue Sky is a studio built on well-timed mediocrity; had the original Ice Age come even three or four years later, it would have been lost in the sea of CG animation. Instead, it filled in a gap in Hollywood's calendar, the only film of its kind between 2001's dynamic duo of Shrek and Monsters, Inc. and 2003's record-setting Finding Nemo.

You can't attribute the Ice Age series' continued success to timing (the sequels have inexplicably enchanted foreign audiences to a huge degree with their translation-impervious slapstick hijinks), but you also can't argue that even the studio's best efforts (probably Horton Hears a Who! and Robots) have been in the same league as anything but the weakest efforts of Pixar, DreamWorks, and Disney. All three of those animation houses likely could have done something more interesting with Peanuts, but they also might have been smart enough to see it not being a great fit for the prevalent animated feature mold. Heck, Schulz and his brain trust stuck to the small screen after 1980 even as various TV competitors (e.g. Care Bears, My Little Pony, Heathcliff) were chasing the box office buck to mostly modest returns. Peanuts has always been driven by characters who are simultaneously childish and grown-up, not the story, action, and conflict that feature films are compelled to supply.

The Peanuts Movie will strike most who see it as just fine. It's a sweet, innocuous G-rated cartoon, something you rarely encounter these days. It does seem to play better with adults who know these characters than children being introduced to them, even if it makes more of an effort for the more valuable latter demographic. My appreciation for the series did not add much to the experience, as even someone much less versed than I should notice the Charlie Brown Christmas dance moves being recycled and might also recognize the names on the Mendelson and Melendez moving truck as a nod to the longtime producer and director of the specials, Lee Mendelson and the late Bill Melendez (whose Snoopy and Woodstock "voices" are recycled).

Peanuts Movie does not capitalize on the nostalgic goodwill we share for this universe, the timing of a November opening to invoke the holiday most closely identified with the franchise, the rich tradition of jazz score provided by Vince Guaraldi (who is briefly played) and David Benoit over the years (it repeatedly drops in original Meghan Trainor pop songs instead), or the visual possibilities afforded by CGI and 3D. It is strictly a middle-of-the-road, "wasn't that cute?" entertainment. At this point, there is no reason to expect any more than that from Blue Sky.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Goosebumps Pan The Martian Spectre
New to DVD: Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!) Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown Peanuts Emmy Honored Collection
Peanuts: 1960's Collection Peanuts: 1970's Collection, Vol. 1 Peanuts: 1970's Collection, Vol. 2
Blue Sky Studios: Epic Rio Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who! Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas Special
Marmaduke Winnie the Pooh (2011) Alvin and the Chipmunks The Smurfs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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Reviewed November 6, 2015.



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