Designed more for kids who know the characters from TV specials rather than the comic strip, this cartoon tempers its boisterousness with a hint of melancholy
It’s been 15 years or so since the demise of the landmark newspaper comic strip “Peanuts” and the death of its legendary creator, Charles M. Schulz, which means that “The Peanuts Movie” will be playing to at least one generation who knows Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and all the rest only as characters from holiday TV specials.
“Peanuts” on the page had an adult sensibility that children could also enjoy, but the animated versions have always been aimed at kids, with enough subtlety and intelligence that grown-ups could also be entertained.
“The Peanuts Movie” maintains this tradition; it’s a kid movie through and through, but care has been taken not to disrupt the gentle timelessness of the TV cartoons. (The original strips, if you go back and read them, never shied away from topical references.)
Schroeder doesn’t play Beethoven in Garage Band, no one has a cellphone, Snoopy still composes his purple prose on a manual typewriter, and the children still fill their days with ice skating and baseball. (Sure, Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida are on the soundtrack, but so is Vince Guaraldi.)
And since every 3D cartoon seemingly must include a flying sequence, Snoopy and Woodstock are there to oblige with some lengthy fantasies about a doghouse-mounted beagle facing off against the Red Baron over the French countryside. To the film’s credit, these moments are integrated into the story more successfully than the tacked-on WWI subplot in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”
Snoopy’s fantasies involve an unattainable love, which ties in perfectly with the main plot here: the sudden arrival of the Little Red-Haired Girl (voiced by Francesca Capaldi) and the flutter she brings to the clumsy, insecure and generally already-flummoxed Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp). But the plot, such as it is, mainly exists as a framework for beloved “Peanuts” tropes like Charlie Brown’s five-cent visits to would-be psychiatrist Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller) or Linus (Alexander Garfin) and his constant defense of his security blanket.
Director Steve Martino (“Ice Age: Continental Drift,” “Horton Hears a Who!”), in keeping with contemporary trends in animation, has rendered these characters in computer-generated three dimensions. While Schulz himself might not have approved — whenever you read about why he appreciated director Bill Melendez’s work on the “Peanuts” TV specials and theatrical features, the adjective “flat” is often cited — the film’s version of this world goes down pretty easily.
Did we need to see the individual strands of Frieda’s naturally curly hair or the fuzz on Snoopy’s face? Not really. Do those visual characteristics stop calling attention to themselves after a few minutes? For me, yes.
The screenplay by Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz and Cornelius Uliano keeps the jokes coming at a steady pace — some of them will be familiar to fans, but they’ve also struck out into some new territory, from a great running gag about an out-of-control model plane to a playful self-referential joke about merchandising.
“Peanuts” purists looking to be rankled will no doubt find plenty to cause alarm. There’s the CG animation, and the fact that we see and hear so much of the mysterious Red-Haired Girl (always off-panel in the strips, though she did make some TV appearances), and a scene in which Peppermint Patty (Venus Schultheis) acknowledges that Snoopy is indeed a dog and not just a kid with a big nose. (Is this a first in the “Peanuts” canon?)
But I suspect that for young audiences, “The Peanuts Movie” will eventually be as much of a launching pad for the work of Charles M. Schulz as previous movie and TV iterations were for their parents.
If “The Peanuts Movie” never quite reaches the melancholy of earlier films like “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy Come Home,” it nonetheless respects the importance of failure and disappointment that Schulz always included in his storytelling. The football Lucy picks up might be tactile and realistic, but that doesn’t make it any more kickable.