Friday, November 6, 2015

Quick Film Thoughts: "The Peanuts Movie"

Charlie Brown can't do anything right. His friends have known this for years. Some might even call him a blockhead - and do. But when a new little red-haired girl joins his class, he's relieved. Here's someone who's never met him before - a chance to start over and become a whole new Charlie Brown. Perhaps the book he got from his psychiatrist Lucy can help. Sure, it cost him five cents, but that's quite a bargain! (What's weirder, the fact that an eight-year-old needs a psychiatrist or the fact an eight-year-old is a psychiatrist? Such is the comedic charm of these children who think like adults.)

How to impress someone? Charlie Brown has many opportunities. There's the talent show. Or the school dance. Or maybe you can write the book report you were supposed to be teamed on with that little red-haired girl all by yourself when she's out of town. Peppermint Patty may be more street-smart than she is book-smart, but she told me her smart friend Marcie said Leo's Toy Store is the greatest book of all time. It certainly can't be that long, can it?

This is the setup for The Peanuts Movie - and you can already tell that all the hallmarks of the franchise and characters are still there. Naturally, Charlie Brown manages to bungle his way through all of these opportunities as only he can, and only adding to his problems is that "Leo's Toy Store" is, of course, Leo Tolstoy of War and Peace fame (a favorite gag subject of Schulz's partly because he loved Tolstoy and partly because War and Peace is known as an incredibly long novel, which itself leads to comic possibilities). But sometimes Charlie Brown surprises you when you least expect it - he managed to get a perfect score on his standardized test! But what if this was a mistake too? Can anything go right for this round-headed kid?

If you're at all familiar with the basic laws of the Peanuts universe, you probably know how this question will be answered. And from this basic description of the plot, you may be thinking to yourself that this is yet another Peanuts story in the tradition of those that preceded it. But that's precisely the point, and it's also the film's biggest strength: it feels both like a traditional Charlie Brown story and yet something a little bit new as far as plots with these characters go.

A lot of reviews have been pointing out the fact that the film is so faithful to its source material that they're considering it either a strength or a weakness depending on their mood and how much they enjoy Peanuts. I came in expecting the "Peanuts greatest hits" package many reviewers have claimed the film to be. What I was surprised to find, however, was that unlike the majority of the Peanuts TV specials made after Charles Schulz's death - including the most recent, the very well-done Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (with which this shares a writer in Craig Schulz, the cartoonist's son) - which took most of their situations and dialogue directly from the comic strips (though Happiness managed to get in an incredibly memorable original scene where Linus calls out every character on their own vices while defending his beloved blanket), The Peanuts Movie takes somewhat of the reverse approach. While the film manages to work in every one of what Schulz called the "twelve devices" that he felt made Peanuts stand out and a few famous lines of dialogue pop up here and there (for example, Lucy's famous reaction to being kissed by Snoopy from A Charlie Brown Christmas), most of the situations and dialogue are completely original yet still feel like Peanuts.

What also sets this film apart from previous Peanuts outings is its slapstick humor, which I feel is its greatest strength. Peanuts is remembered mostly for its witty dialogue and a bit of that is on display here with a few funny lines that show off the "children acting like adults" concept, such as Lucy asking Charlie Brown if he's ever won a Congressional Medal of Honor or Charlie Brown fearing his pursuing the little red-haired girl will eventually lead to his house in escrow over an unpaid mortgage. But a cartoonist is both a talented writer and a talented artist (or at least they should be), and Schulz was both. His drawings were simple, but he could get a lot of comic mileage out of simple slapstick reactions - Lucy causing Charlie Brown to do a midair somersault by shouting "YOU BLOCKHEAD!", Charlie Brown's clothes being knocked off by a line drive, and so on. This sort of slapstick is here in spades, and it's all pulled off with a great comic timing - perhaps not surprising from the studio that gave us Scrat. Craig Schulz told the Blue Sky team that his father always said Peanuts was a "chuckle strip" rather than a laugh-out-loud strip, and that the film should follow. But I'd disagree with that assessment: there were a lot of big laughs at the screening I attended at a lot of the physical comedy moments, two of my personal favorites being Charlie Brown's interactions with a young boy (known only as "Little Kid") in a nurse's office and asking to be taught how to fly a kite. (Of note is that Little Kid's voice is provided by the great-grandson of one Charles Monroe Schulz.)

As far as slapstick and appeal goes, however, the crown for both is taken, as it usually is, by the beagle in the room who I intentionally haven't mentioned up until now. Snoopy has always been an interesting case as to how he's depicted in animation, for some of his best story lines in the comic strip revolve around us being able to "read" his internal thoughts. But Snoopy manages, as he usually does, to steal the show without saying a word (but making a lot of funny noises - the late Bill Melendez's distinctive "voice" for the dog and his bird pal Woodstock is part of what makes their "silent" comedy so memorable, and the sequences here probably wouldn't have been as funny without them). Some of the funniest sequences in the film involve Snoopy assisting Charlie Brown in his various plans, and it's sweet to see Snoopy as a true friend to his owner. Snoopy's fantasy life is given somewhat of an "origin story" here, as a typewriter he finds in a Dumpster outside the school and a runaway toy airplane combine to inspire his effort to write the Great American Novel. His story, of course, involves a oddly dog-looking World War I flying ace fighting the Red Baron, and these fantasy sequences are interspersed in between Charlie Brown's story as they parallel what's happening to Charlie Brown in his attempt to become liked. Snoopy himself has a love if only in his dreams - a French poodle named Fifi who is herself a brave pilot but ends up too close to the Red Baron. Although the Flying Ace sequences in previous animated outings (most notably It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) tended to overstay their welcome, the Snoopy fantasies are some of the highlights of the film, in part due to the slapstick comedy of Snoopy and his pit crew of Woodstock and company which, like the rest of the film, is funny and well-timed. By far the most memorable is one towards the end of the film, where Snoopy imagines himself "behind enemy lines" trying to rescue Fifi. In a series of cutaways, we see he's actually acting out his "rescue" in real life, running from house to house and managing to annoy every kid in the neighborhood in the process. (Fifi is voiced by Kristen Chenoweth, oddly enough - an unusual choice as you would have no idea it was her just from listening, but she does a great job mimicking Melendez's high-pitched grumbles.)

If there's any weakness to the film, it's the fact that the emphasis on Charlie Brown and Snoopy gives some of the characters little to do. This is a complaint I've seen pop up in a couple of professional reviews, and it is somewhat noticeable. A couple of the bigger names in the incredibly memorably supporting cast are relegated to a few certain key traits: Linus totes his blanket around and occasionally references the Great Pumpkin, Schroeder just plays his piano. But other cast members end up being used in amusing ways that move the plot forward: Peppermint Patty is responsible for unintentionally getting Charlie Brown involved in most of the setpieces, as she often does, and Charlie Brown's younger sister Sally gets some memorable sequences, including a very sweet sacrifice by Charlie Brown that shows a side of him not really shown in previous Peanuts stories and a perhaps self-parodic running gag in which she cashes in on her big brother's new-found fame by giving tours of his house and selling Charlie Brown merchandise.

As for how the film looks and sounds? Like a lot of people, I laughed at Craig Schulz's remark when this project was announced three years ago that they were waiting until the technology was at the place they wanted it to be before they made a computer-animated Peanuts movie. This is a silly statement on its surface, but perhaps there is something to it: the film is not too flashy. The characters have a bit of depth and Snoopy has fuzzy fur, but they still look - and most importantly, move - like the characters we all know and love. The choice of taking poses directly from the comic strip and animating "on twos" like the animated specials, combined with the look of the characters, sometimes gives the animation the feel of stop-motion clay animation. Although Schulz's comic could be incredibly topical - touching on pop culture icons over the years from Davy Crockett to Billie Jean King to Harry Potter - the specials always had a timeless quality, and the film honors this by intentionally not being topical or up-to-date - Charlie Brown still uses a rotary phone with a springy cord of the sort that I myself think is fun to draw. (Apparently, one of the TV spots has Charlie Brown asking "Is there an emoji for 'good grief?'" Thankfully, this line does not appear in the actual film.

The character voices are all well-chosen - actual children provide the voices of Charlie Brown and his gang and the actors (led by Noah Schapp, who most recently appeared as Tom Hanks's son in Bridge of Spies) were chosen for their similarity to the classic character voices, not their name recognition, and it shows. They're all very talented and sound like we expect the characters to sound. Christophe Beck's score is nothing to write home about, but it's at its best when paired with that other inseparable element of the Peanuts sound, the jazz music of Vince Guaraldi. Beck's orchestrations of Guaraldi's music - especially a lively version of the "Peanuts theme" Linus and Lucy that orchestrates a funny sequence of Charlie Brown rushing through a carnival - are well done and I wish the score had utilized more of them rather than going for original music.

Perhaps the biggest sticking point with Peanuts purists is the fact that the film actually shows what the little red-haired girl looks like. Schulz, of course, famously never depicted her in the comics, save for one appearance in silhouette towards the end of the strip's run. As opposed to some of the earlier animated specials, however, this incarnation of the little red-haired girl (which is actually based on that silhouette) is given somewhat more of an air of mystery that suits the character's depiction, or lack thereof, in the comic strips. For one thing, her actual name is never heard. For another, most of her appearances in the movie are fleeting - both Charlie Brown and we only get to see the back of her head, or perhaps a quick shot of her face to the side. Charlie Brown is given a chance to see her face to face and she actually speaks in the scene that constitutes the "moral", as it were, of the film. Some purists may balk at the inclusion of a semi-optimistic moral in the usually pessimistic Peanuts universe, but Charlie Brown occasionally gets a bone thrown here and there.

Perhaps it's a little too optimistic for the tastes of some, but that "moral" perfectly sums up what Charlie Brown, both in his universe and ours, manages to do: be appealing for doing the same thing over and over without giving up. Sure, it'll probably never work, but in a way, it has: Charles Schulz himself always thought he'd never amount to anything and his work would be long forgotten after he put down his pen for good. In the long run, both Charlies turned out to have been wrong about themselves, and The Peanuts Movie's something-old, something-new approach is perhaps the perfect testament to what both Good Ol' Charlie Brown and Good Ol' Charlie Schulz were able to do so well - to paraphrase Schulz himself, being able to do the same thing over and over again without repeating themselves. Every dog has his day, and Charlie Brown (figuratively) and Snoopy (literally) are definitely having theirs. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of them on the big screen and the generation who is just meeting them for the first time (such as one kid at the preview screening I attended who loved Snoopy so much he thanked his lead animator multiple times for drawing him so funny) will, as the filmmakers hope, take a look at the TV specials and above all the comics (which have been lovingly reprinted over the past decade) that gave them birth. Charlie Brown perseveres, and his ability to adapt to modern times without actually "adapting" at all proves it. This film is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

(There are three gags during the credits: the final gag at the very end which sort of resolves a running gag isn't worth staying for, but the first two during the above-the-line credits and cast listing definitely are. One is one of Schulz's "twelve devices" I assume everyone expects to see, and the other is a brief cameo by five supporting characters I'd love to see more of if Snoopy ever returns to the big screen.)

The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I paid to see this film out of my own pocket, and this blog post is no way endorsed and/or sponsored by any person or entity involved in the production, distribution, and/or marketing of The Peanuts Movie or its sponsors.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Peanuts characters ©2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership of this property is intended or should be inferred.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Trip Report: "The Peanuts Movie" Preview Screening

Where exactly does Charlie Brown live? Charles Schulz's legacy looms large over Sonoma County due to spending his life where the museum which honors him is now located, but the Peanuts gang frequently is seen in the snow during wintertime. Wherever it is, it's certainly not a big city like New York - but the round-headed kid and his accomplices do have a history there. When Charlie Brown first made it to the big screen in 1969's A Boy Named Charlie Brown, he made it to the big city for a spelling bee at what appears to be Radio City Music Hall - perhaps not coincidentally also where the film opened.

Nearly half a century later, Charlie Brown returned to New York, with both the presentation and the venue somewhat more state-of-the-art, as the high-tech and highly entertaining Museum of the Moving Image in Queens played host to a preview screening of the blockhead's first computer-animated outing on November 4, wrapping up a week of Peanuts Movie-themed events in both New York City (including Al Roker's now-infamous Charlie Brown Halloween costume on the Today show) and Hollywood (where Snoopy became the first fictional dog to get a star on the Walk of Fame). Art director Nash Dunnigan and Snoopy's lead animator Jeff Gabor were on hand to present behind-the-scenes information and a Q&A session after the movie where they gave insights as to the many struggles and questions that came up when transforming Charles Schulz's four-panel comics into a 90-minute movie. And one of those questions just happened to be "where exactly does Charlie Brown live?"

Dunnigan and Gabor began their talk by remarking that Blue Sky Studios - which I was surprised to find out are located in Connecticut - are "500 of the biggest Peanuts fans you'll ever meet" and that when they told people they were working with Peanuts, the two reactions they got were inevitably the same: "I love Peanuts!" followed immediately by "Don't screw it up!" Fortunately, Snoopy has six overprotective guardians in the form of Jeannie Schulz - his widow and head of Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates, who alongside Iconix Brands controls the characters as Peanuts Worldwide - and their five children (including Craig Schulz, who co-wrote and co-produced the film), who are extremely protective of how the characters are depicted. The animators were given access to the archives of the Schulz Museum and also had digitized versions of every Peanuts comic strip - Gabor remarked he's still animating Snoopy for some promotional materials and looks at a set of strips he considered the best for Snoopy reference every day. The Blue Sky team were told by the Schulzes that Mr. Schulz hated the name "Charles" and much preferred to be called "Sparky" (a nickname given to him shortly after birth after Barney Google's decrepit racehorse Spark Plug, who actually makes a cameo in the movie). It felt odd at first to call him "Sparky" since they had never met him personally, but the Schulzes made them feel like they were a part of the family with their cooperation.

One of the first questions the team at Blue Sky had to answer was "what do the Peanuts characters look like?" This seems like a strange question to ask seeing as we've seen them thousands of times in TV, in newspapers, and on merchandise, and Charles Schulz drew them thousands of times - nearly 17,000 comics strips for 50 years. But that longevity was exactly what complicated the problem - the characters as drawn at the beginning of the strip's run are much different from those at the end. Snoopy was the biggest example given - in the 1960s and 1970s he gradually evolved from being drawn with real dog proportions while walking on all fours to walking on his hind legs with a head larger than his body, a body structure Dunnigan and Gabor compared to that of a human toddler. To create the "hero" model of the characters - the model that would be used to represent the character in the movie - a number of Schulz drawings of the characters, most from the 1980s and 1990s, were gathered and the entire team voted on which aspects of each drawing were the most visually appealing. For Snoopy, three different drawings were chosen, and the team ended up choosing the ear from one, the head from another, and the body from a third.

From there, it was a process of going through Schulz's drawings and finding the best example illustration of every pose he drew the character in and which would look the best for the "hero" model they chose. In Snoopy's case, this includes everything from him sitting on top of his doghouse at his typewriter to laughing to various physical actions. Eight to ten animators were on the team at first, which eventually grew to 80. Every new recruit on the Peanuts project was enrolled in "Van Pelt University" and taught how to draw the characters in Schulz's style. The animators then had to have all of their drawings checked by their supervisors to make sure they were "on-model" (an animation term which means that they're being drawn according to illustrations given to animators as a model on how to draw them correctly).

After figuring out how the characters would be drawn in two dimensions, the next natural problem was what exactly would they'd look like in three dimensions. Interestingly enough, they had a point of reference for this matter, as the Peanuts characters were actually made into 3D figures for a series of View-Master reels in the '60s.

Although this made a good starting point, things got strange when they actually tried to make the characters into standard 3D "turnaround" models - 360-degree animated characters whose body parts can be moved to create animation. For one thing, in their analysis of Schulz's drawings, the animators determined Schulz only drew six facial expressions for every character - extreme left and right, three-quarter view left and right, head looking down, and head looking up (with their nose in the air and their mouth usually in a funny scream). Even this proved to be more complicated than it looked. Dunnigan and Gabor showed off some head tests they did with Charlie Brown as a model. If he were to look straight ahead, his nose and hair would look wrong compared to the original drawings, so it was decided to just utilize those six original poses. But even that had its complications - the position of Charlie Brown's ears and nose actually change places in the Schulz drawings between when he's looking to the side and when he's looking towards us. The early test of Charlie Brown moving from extreme to three-quarter positions was unintentionally hilarious, as the ears and nose indeed move positions and his eyes actually melt into his face at one point. To make matters even worse, the characters moving at 24 frames a second - the standard speed for animated film (that is, every second of film contains 24 unique "drawings") - just looked wrong. We weren't given an example of this, but Gabor remarked their 24fps test looked like someone wearing a Charlie Brown suit.

Due to budget limitations, the original hand-drawn animated specials were animated "on twos". That is, rather than each frame being an original drawing, only every other frame is, making for 12 drawings per second. The solution to the facial expression problem was solved by having Charlie Brown blink when his face moves from looking in an extreme direction to looking towards us, which hides both the repositioning of his facial features and prevents his eyes from melting into his face.

As he often does, Snoopy makes things even more complicated. His head does not change shape between his extreme poses and three-quarter poses - the only thing that changes are the position of his nose and eyes. The end result of all this experimentation is that the animation poses chosen to directly mimic Schulz's drawings only work in those positions and not as a traditional 3D turnaround. We were shown some examples of what some of Snoopy's poses look like as a 3D turnaround, and the results were often comically disturbing. Snoopy in his Flying Ace getup with his mouth wide open, for example, results in one of the eyeholes in his goggles being detached from the rest of his face and his open mouth wrapping around into the back of his head. Thankfully, of course, this is only on the side of Snoopy that was designed not to be seen.

That's not to say that there isn't any 2D animation in the film: in a number of sequences Charlie Brown's internal thoughts are shown on-screen in black-and-white hand-drawn animation. Dunnigan and Gabor pointed out all of these sequences were animated by a single person, working directly from Schulz drawings. The squiggly lines in these sequences (an element one audience member who asked about their origin compared to Ed Edd 'n' Eddy) were used to create the idea of a drawing come to life.

Director Steve Martino's mantra was "when in doubt, look to the strip". This went for not only how the characters would be posed but also what background objects and facial expressions would look like. The team came up with a lot of funny nicknames for some of Schulz's drawing tendencies: the parenthesis-shaped protrusions which often come out of character's dot-eyes when looking in a certain direction are "peri-wrinkles" (pronounced like "periwinkle"). Clouds are either baguette-shaped or popcorn-shaped. And to those "happy clouds" (as Bob Ross would say) we can add "happy sausages" - when characters walk, the toes and heels of their shoes point towards the sky, making them "happy sausages" (as opposed to "sad sausages", which would be pointing towards the ground).

A promotional image showing the evolution of Snoopy. The 1970s version shows off "peri-wrinkles", while we can see happy sausage feet on the 1980s Snoopy.

A black-and-white Peanuts comic strip doesn't really need much other than the characters and some dialogue balloons - perhaps a line to represent the ground and a few baguette or popcorn clouds. Of course, an animated Peanuts movie without a background or color would look somewhat odd. Which leads to the answer to the question I posed at the start of this article: where exactly do the Peanuts characters live? The team took a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, where Schulz was born and raised, and took a look at the style of houses there: your typical old-fashioned suburban housing (not too far off from the houses in the Northeastern suburb where I live, actually). In fact, in the few instances where Schulz did draw a portion of a house in his backgrounds, they looked exactly like the sort of houses the team found in St. Paul. As for color, the colored Sunday comic strips often used very bold primary colors due to the limitations of color printing in newspapers at the time, which would be too bold and flashy for an animated movie. Rooms and furniture were given somewhat subdued colors which were chosen to make sure they didn't clash with the distinctive primary colors of the clothes the characters famously wear in the animated specials (Charlie Brown's yellow shirt, Lucy's blue dress, etc.).

The final step in the process was the stereoscopic effects, or how the film looks when you're watching it in 3D with glasses. The film goes back and forth between the main story in Charlie Brown's "real" world and Snoopy's Red Baron fantasies inside his imagination, and the 3D effects were purposely different in each. In Charlie Brown's world, the posing is frequently as if the movie screen was a comic strip panel, with the characters right in the center and some background elements to the left and right of them, with the characters posed stereoscopically "behind" the audience. In Snoopy's sequences, Snoopy is "outside" the audience in a way that you could theoretically reach out and touch him, and out of necessity he's often positioned towards the bottom or the sides of the screen. This necessity being that Schulz never drew the bottom of his doghouse when he was pretending it was an airplane - he intentionally made it vague as to whether Snoopy actually was flying his doghouse or if it was all in his head. The animators kept this aspect by never showing the bottom of his doghouse/plane in the fantasy sequences, though sometimes they had to cheat by hiding it behind a cloud in cases where the entire house would be required have to be on screen.

As you can probably tell from this recap, the event was a lot of fun and it was quite interesting to see how much went into recreating the look of the comic strip and TV specials while given it only the minimal "modern" computer-animated spin required to compete in today's movie market. But the final question that needs to be asked is: was the movie any good? For that, you will have to wait until tomorrow, either to see it for yourself or to wait for my full review. Either way, I have a feeling you won't be disappointed. I'll go into more detail tomorrow, but for now I can definitely tell you this: They didn't screw it up.

I paid for this excursion out of my own pocket. It was in no way sponsored by anyone or anything, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE ©2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. PEANUTS characters ©2015 Peanuts Worldwide LLC. No ownership of these properties is intended or should be inferred.