In the opening scene of The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown is setting out his kite for one more try at flying the stupid thing. That’s natural enough. He may fail every time, but he won’t stop, which is part of what makes him an admirable character. The thing is, it’s the middle of winter. Other characters mock him for this. He reasons the kite-eating tree can’t get his kite in this weather. It’s plausible enough. It even feels, at least a bit, like something the character in the comic strip would do. Especially in the strip’s late-90s renaissance, when Charles Schulz found new inspiration and played a bit more overtly with the comic strip’s motifs and running gags. So I can rationalize it. I can see where it makes sense, if not effortlessly, then at least because I can believe in the thinking needed to make that come about.
That’s what I suppose my verdict on The Peanuts Movie has to be. It’s a project that shows an obsessive, almost fan-like devotion to the comic strip. It attempts to do some original things. I can see where all the reasoning makes sense, even if it seems to fall a bit short of being quite natural. The wintertime kite-flying ends in a crash, as it could not help but do. The sequence goes on to Snoopy swiping Linus’s blanket, and recreates the ice-skating-chaos scene of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And that’s another of the movie’s driving forces, a desire to touch on classic or at least remembered pieces of the comic strip or older specials.
I mean, there’s a scene that arguably calls out It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, one of those Peanuts specials that gets included as an extra to pad out the running time of the remembered, better-liked specials. There’s a quick appearance by not just Snoopy’s sister Belle, but of Belle’s son. You may remember him from his two appearances in the comics in 1976, or as the answer to the never-asked trivia question “did Snoopy have any nephews?” There’s even a quick reference to 5. 5 — 555 95472, to give him his full name — is the Boba Fett of Peanuts, an exceedingly minor character with more appearances and more fan interest than he deserves.
Ahead of the movie’s release my love asked what I hoped for from it. I had ambiguous feelings. It struck me there were always basically two kinds of Peanuts specials or movies. There are the emotion-driven ones — A Boy Named Charlie Brown (the spelling bee movie), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Snoopy Come Home, There’s No Time For Love, Charlie Brown, that ilk. Then there are the plot-driven ones — Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, It’s A Mystery, Charlie Brown, She’s A Good Skate, Charlie Brown. Generally speaking, the more emotion-driven the better. What makes Peanuts fly is its emotional core — the indignation of wondering why everybody else gets to be happy — and if you want to have a plot, it should serve that. So I hoped for an emotion-driven movie.
(That isn’t to say strong plots make for bad Peanuts. But strong plots make it easy to get so wrapped up in doing things that you lose the sense of what you’re doing them for.)
The Peanuts Movie has a fairly strong plot, although it is a plot about emotions. Charlie Brown wants desperately to impress the new kid in class, the Little Red-Haired Girl. And thus there’s this string of little episodes of schemes attempting to be impressive, which all go wrong. Any one of them is all right. Any one of them could be its own special, really, and probably carry that weight adequately. That there’s so many episodes gets to be wearying. I think I’d have chosen to drop one and provide more time to savor the others, were I making the movie.
The runtime of the movie and the decision to make the plot “Charlie Brown Tries To Impress The Little Red-Haired Girl” work against each other, though. The problem with the Little Red-Haired Girl as a character is that she hasn’t got any character. She’s an invisible slate in the comic strip. All we know about her is that Charlie Brown thinks he likes her, and she chews her pencil, and her grandmother has red hair too. As long as she stays off-screen that’s enough. We don’t need to know why something is important to a character in order to accept that it is important to the character.
Put her on-screen, though, and she has to do something, show some reason why Charlie Brown should put any effort into impressing her. She almost has to do something at the climax, either accept or reject Charlie Brown. If she rejects him then the audience has good reason to have nothing to do with her again. If she accepts him, well, that’s nice, but then what do they have to talk about? Her only character traits are that she’s somehow tantalizing to Charlie Brown, and a mystery to the audience. You’re In Love, Charlie Brown — with a strikingly similar plot — gets away with this. Its short running time helps it. None of Charlie Brown’s attempts can take up too much time, and the contact between Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl is short and ambiguous enough to preserve her tantalizing mystery. I’m sad that the encounter between Charlie Brown and the Little Red-Haired Girl couldn’t be shorter and more ambiguous in the movie.
This plotting problem could probably have been avoided if they had ditched the Little Red-Haired Girl and used another character from the comics — Peggy Jean, Charlie Brown’s girlfriend from the 90s strips. She was always a character on-screen and accessible. She could interact with Charlie Brown in the relaxed, easy way that makes it easy to understand why Charlie Brown might like her, and why audiences might like them as a couple. But Peggy Jean never had that tantalizing and mysterious aspect, and never captured the public’s imagination the way the Little Red-Haired Girl did. Peggy Jean might have made for a less tortured story. What can you do when a central character can only be glimpsed from afar and can’t say much of substance, and can’t even be addressed by name? But I must admit nobody who isn’t a hardcore Peanuts fan even remembers Peggy Jean existed. Even some who are hardcore fans forget her. The marketing logic probably overwhelmed the plotting logic.
There is much likable about this. The animation style, for example, I think worked better than it had any rights to. (Though there are a few dream sequences with classic animation, and which show how unbelievably awesome traditional animation done on a feature budget would make Schulz’s line style. Add to his personable, wavering line a fluttering in time and you have almost perfected animation. Anytime a straight line has personality you are doing art brilliantly right.) There’s a running secondary plot of Snoopy writing a World War I Flying Ace story that makes for well-timed pauses in the main story. And it provides the mandatory Runaway 3-D Setting for the video game to adapt.
There’s a funny scene of Marcie touting the right book for a book report to Charlie Brown. (Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.) This feeds into another funny scene of Charlie Brown working out the plot of War and Peace that’s enough of a laugh that only later did I wonder “did I just see that in a Peanuts cartoon?” There are many efforts to pander to the hardcore fan. (Who else could have any desire to see two seconds of Belle’s son?) I admit it’s a quirk of my personality that the more something panders to me as a fan the less I like the result.
So, I’m glad for the movie, and I think it’s worth seeing. It didn’t fall into the obvious pitfalls that could make a bad Peanuts film, although I don’t think it made a great one either. I could probably be more ambiguous, but only by trying.
The movie doesn’t clearly set itself in any particular time. It’s rather like the comic strip that way. Charlie Brown has a land-line telephone with a cord, that sits on a stand in the hallway, but then anyone might. None of the other characters are shown having cell phones or making reference to social media. But they don’t have reason to anyway. There is something naturally detached-from-time about the original comic strip, and it’s disorienting (in Happy New Year, Charlie Brown) to hear a character talk about a computer game. On the other hand, in the late years of the strip Lucy mentioned giving her e-mail address to Charlie Brown and that didn’t feel like it went against the nature of the universe.
The movie gets Peppermint Patty’s last name (Reichardt) correct. It gives Marcie a last name that I don’t think has any basis in the strip. The name went by too fast for me to remember what it was. It takes no stance on the question of whether Schroeder is the kid’s first or last name.