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.

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