The new animated film of THE PEANUTS MOVIE (dir. Steve Martino, 2015) is a true gem. A loving tribute to the late Charles Schultz, it succeeds where so many other attempts to revive classic animated characters have failed and delivers in a way that is satisfying to both children and adults.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the broadcast of the dearly beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas, the classic animated gem that was decades ahead of its time when it took on the crass consumer blasphemy of Christ’s birth with the story of a little boy looking for the perfect holiday tree and a cool jazz soundtrack that still strikes the right notes. Every frame of this new film is a loving homage to that special and the multiple other Charlie Brown pictures that followed. As irony would have it, the picture was preceded by a trailer for another wretched live action-CGI hybrid film featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks. Those films, which ‘update’ the classic characters for a new generation, are instruction manuals for what not to do when producing a film.
This film, by contrast, is the complete opposite. Charlie Brown does not have a cell phone, Lucy is not cribbing her psychiatric insights from Dr. Phil, Snoopy has yet to buy an iPod (in fact he is still clicking away at the typewriter on top of his doghouse with Woodstock), Schroeder does not play Beethoven on a key-tar, and the kids are spending their free time outside playing games instead of staring at the video game console. Some animated films use the third dimension created by computer graphical dynamics to make the picture into merely a parade of gimmicks at the expense of the script. Here we have a genuine script that uses the extra dimension to give the characters some breathing room.
The plot is pretty simple, Charlie Brown runs through the pratfalls associated with a little boy’s first crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl while Snoopy engages in a fantastic battle against his age-old enemy the Red Baron. Yet that is not doing real justice to the story. The plot is just a skeleton on which the film makers hang a series of re-stagings of classic Peanuts bits that we all loved. Lucy doles out her psychiatric advice from her sidewalk booth, still for a nickel. Charlie Brown cannot get that kite to fly. Sally is still trying to get her hands on Linus, who remains tied to his security blanket. Peppermint Patty is still dependent on Marcie for vital moments of grace. The adults are still talking with voices of warbling trombones. When they have a big dance, all the kids are still dancing in that classic fashion we all loved. The Kite-Eating Tree makes an appearance, as does a chorus of carolers singing a familiar Christmas song.
When Charles Schultz died within hours of the final publication of his comic strip fifteen years ago, I for one was left feeling a little empty and sad to see the end of an epoch. After a decade and a half, we get a fitting climax that is not playing for stupidity. Rather, it reaches out for every fan of the cartoons and comic strips, gives you a great big hug, and treats you like an old friend you have not seen in years. And as a fitting tribute to how Schultz rebelled against the commercialization of the holidays, this film is a little more subtle but includes as a major plot point a stinging rebuke of standardized testing and the neoliberal commercialization of education.
On a weekend where I had the option to see either Snoopy or James Bond, I chose this film and was not disappointed. Whether or not Daniel Craig can again successfully update a story about Cold War espionage remains to be seen. Yet the film makers have created a film here that does not try to update a timeless set of characters. If this is not at least nominated for Best Animated Film come Oscar time, that body will have finally proven themselves useless. See this movie with a child, see this movie on a date, see this movie on your own, it does not matter, you will be left smiling for hours.