Peanuts has always been more than just a comic strip.
Not that being a comic strip per se is a bad thing; rather that the creation of Charles M. Schulz has always transcended the ephemeral, transitory nature of the medium and the small black and white panels that define it to glorious effect, to become something far more enduring, that connects with people deeply, whimsically and profoundly.
Perhaps they identify with Charlie Brown, a well-intentioned, determined young boy who never seems to get the break he’s looking for; or perhaps they admire the staunch supportive but mischievous, fantasy-inclined Snoopy, or the “I know what’s right” surety of Lucy, or any one of the many other endearing characters.
Whatever the attraction, and they are considerable from pithy life lessons to surreal daydream adventures, Peanuts has long enthralled people with its child-centric world where life is, on one level quite simple, and on another, most certainly not.
The Peanuts Movie, or as it’s known in some countries such as Australia Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie, captures pretty much everything anyone has ever loved the comic strip in one artfully-realised, emotionally-impacting way that honours what has gone before but acknowledges that, 65 years after the strip was first published, that things have moved on.
But as with The Muppets, who have also enjoyed a recent revival, the movie successfully sticks to evoking the intrinsic heart-and-soul of a comic strip that has been so successful precisely because so much of what makes it up, is so relatable no matter the age or the demographic.
Who of us after all, except for the most robustly confident, hasn’t felt some kinship with Charlie Brown at one time or another?
He is the Everyboy of Peanuts, the one who tries and fails to kick the football, and thanks to Lucy’s repeat trickery, misses it every time, who longs to speak to the Little Red-Haired Girl but backs out every time afraid she won’t like him, who sets out to fly a kite only to have it snaffled up each time by the dreaded Kite-Eating Tree.
What is so marvellously engaging about Charlie Brown though is that for all these setbacks, he never gives up; he gets deflated sure but he never gives up, and The Peanuts Movie, with a script by Charlies M. Schulz’s son and grandson Bryan and Craig Schultz and Cornelius Uliano, seizes on that tenacity, battered and bruised as it may be, as a narrative linchpin.
After we’re treated to an opening scene that recalls the TV specials of all with the children of the Peanuts neighbourhood enjoying a “Snow Day”, where Charlie Brown, on the basis that the Kite-Eating Tree must surely be dormant in winter, tries and fails to fly a kite, it’s the arrival of the Little Red-Haired Girl, our endearing hero’s Moby Dick, that sets the plot, and Charlie Brown’s refusal to ever say die, into motion.
Determined to impress the prettiest girl he has ever seen, Charlie Brown does everything in his power, “assisted” by Snoopy who is in full flight here, his own romantic Red Baron fantasies often distracting from his task of being “man’s best friend” ( as always he comes through when it counts) to let the object of his affection, nay full-flight-love, know he is there and very much wants to talk to her.
But as is the way of Charlie Brown’s life, nothing quite goes to plan with “Good ol’ Charlie Brown”, who gets to use the phrase “Good grief” very early on in the film, finds his attempts to impress at a talent show, the school dance, and with a book report, where he is happily partnered with the Little Red-Haired Girl, not quite going according to plan.
And even when he achieves a perfect score on a test, something no one child has ever managed at the school before, and becomes a major celebrity adored by everyone rather than ridiculed – this is hilariously seized upon by his sister Sally who appoints herself as his manager and merchandises his 15 seconds of fame like crazy in a delightful comment on modern celebrity – he chooses integrity over fame and believes he has lost out once again.
While Charlie Brown is caught up in wooing the Little Red-Haired Girl, Snoopy is off discovering his inner literary hero – he humourously discovers his trusty typewriter in a school dumpster when he’s once again turfed out of the classroom – and in turn, his inner World War One flying ace, fighting off the red Baron and save fellow ace and romantic object, Fifi.
It’s these scenes that comes beautifully to life, illustrating both Snoopy’s fecund imagination and creativity, but also his alternating detachment from reality even as he comes to the party with Charlie Brown when he really needs him.
While all the other characters get plenty of time with Schroeder even playing in the 20th Century Fox theme logo in a lovely touch and Lucy dispensing advice as a psychiatrist and life coach, it’s the relationship between Charlie Brown and Snoopy that anchors the film as it has done for 65 years in the comic strip.
The Peanuts Movie excels by not only focusing on this pivotal relationship, but by cramming in as many of the things we loved about the comic strip from catchphrases to character quirks to perennial plot points without feeling like they are simply there in order to tick off a list.
There’s also a pleasing nod to the comic strip look and feel with all the characters but most particularly Charlie Brown, recalling key events in 2D black and white, a marked contrast to the luminously colourful and rich 3D animation which works brilliantly, set against exquisitely well-rendered backdrops.
As in the comic strip, adults are never seen, and never really heard – their voices are conveyed by “trumpet speak” as in the TV specials – keeping the child-centric focus well-and-truly intact.
That there is a happy ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion but how it’s articulated is a delight with all the charm, intelligent and non-mawkish emotion that Peanuts manages effortlessly, even in this brave new digital age of which it hasn’t been an active part until now.
While there are some modern touches such as Sally obsession with celebrity marketing, The Peanuts Movie is largely a retro-visual affair that manages to evoke all the nostalgia we feel about Peanuts without ever once feeling it is hopelessly caught in the past.
If this the Peanuts we must have for the 21st century, than it’s a very good Peanuts indeed, and one that fans old and new, those with an affinity for Kite-Eating Tree and those who have never come across one in their life, will appreciate.
(Oh and stay to the end of the credits, both for more of Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful classic jazz scores and lovely visual gag that rounds off this gorgeous film perfectly.)