Nostalgic adults, there’s no need to shout “aaugh!” Like Linus van Pelt has told Charlie Brown for over six decades, don’t worry so much. The youth of today have been spared. The Peanuts Movie, the long-awaited return of the Charles M Schulz comic strip characters to theatrically released feature films, isn’t that different from what you or perhaps your parents watched. While that has its drawbacks, this is, overall, a good thing.
Indeed, the Peanuts Movie plays as something like a “greatest hits” of the franchise in all its incarnations, from the beloved holiday television specials to those cute-but-not-hilarious greeting cards that seem to arrive with regularity from an infantilising family member. All the classic moments are there, crammed in as if we might not get another shot at this. It’s all very sweet and charming, and we should be thankful this isn’t a childhood-ruining disaster. But it’s still a 93-minute movie that somehow feels a half-hour too long.
From the opening, familiar Vince Guaraldi piano chords it’s clear that director Steve Martino is taking a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” approach with all this. Charlie Brown is still childhood’s prime schlemiel, a wishy-washy knot of malaise and misfortune. Loudmouth Lucy remains his great foil, his little sister Sally is something of a noodge and his faithful beagle Snoopy is there when the chips are down (but will still laugh when an errant baseball manages to knock off all of Charlie Brown’s clothes).
The Peanuts Movie is more of a string of small episodes than a cohesive plot, with some sections working far better than others. Charlie Brown toiling with a Tolstoi book report is a hoot, as is an extended sequence in which the whole school mistakenly thinks he’s a genius. While Snoopy and his feathered friend Woodstock are adorable, the Walter Mitty-esque action scenes in which the imaginative pooch pursues the mysterious Red Baron get tiresome with great speed. There is far too little of Lucy van Pelt as tyke psychiatrist for my taste, but I was heartened to hear that Peppermint Patty still calls Charlie Brown “Chuck” and Marcie still calls Peppermint Patty “Sir”.
An overall story eventually emerges, in which blockhead Charlie Brown must learn to gain some self-confidence. It’s not very progressive, but the entirety of this arc is dependent on trying to “win” the Little Red-Headed Girl, the angelic new student who doesn’t even know our klutzy hero exists. Her affection is a trophy, but Lucy, Sally, Peppermint Patty and Marcie all seem OK with it, so accusing the film of perpetuating negative gender tropes won’t likely gain much traction. Besides, the Little Red-Headed Girl grows to like Charlie Brown because he’s honest and kind, and that’s a message hard to shout down.
A lot has changed in moviemaking since 1980’s Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!), the last time the Peanuts kids were in theaters. The animation company Blue Sky has given the gang the 3D computer generated treatment, but the result is a crafty middle ground that honours the past while still entrancing the current crop of rug rats. The characters pop out of the simple backgrounds like puffy stickers, and there are some nice handmade touches, like a letter Z appearing over a snoring Woodstock. Compared to the earlier work it is definitely more antic, but it looks positively genteel alongside Blue Sky’s Ice Age films.
There’s enough dancing and silliness with Snoopy to keep younger kids engaged, though parents who don’t consider themselves strict constructionists may find their minds wandering. Other than Franklin (who isn’t given much to do) there is very little diversity in the Peanuts gang. Ought not some changes have been made to reflect the current ethnic makeup of the country? Marcie couldn’t follow Peppermint Patty around wearing a hijab? Schroeder couldn’t have been Hispanic, and maybe mixed in some Latin jazz on the piano? These easy changes would go a long way, and hardly alter the essence of the characters. This is a movie about teaching kids to feel confident, right?
The lack of representation and the lengthy, desultory Red Baron dream sequences aside, The Peanuts Movie remains quite strong when it focuses on Charlie Brown’s self-aware magnetism to failure, and the Greek chorus of friends who simultaneously rib him and root for him. It comes to a triumphant climax in which Charlie Brown must run across a carnival, literally held back from his first romantic relationship by the signifiers of childhood. While the conclusion is inspiring, a full happy ending would be too out of character. In 60 years of comic strips Charlie Brown never kicked Lucy van Pelt’s football. The “aaugh!”s live on.