What I Think Of The Peanuts Movie


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 recreate 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 she 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.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

14 thoughts on “What I Think Of The Peanuts Movie”

    1. Well, they could at least have made a movie with different flaws in it. I can’t help noticing I don’t say anything useful about what they should do, just some talk about things that didn’t work.

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  1. It’s incredibly difficult to turn a comic strip into a movie. Despite various ‘story arcs’ in the strip, the format isn’t suited to the plot arc of a full length movie. This is true of most strips including Peanuts. The New Zealand equivalent is ‘Footrot Flats’, which was a classic 4-5 frame weekly strip. It made an ok, if mildly flawed, movie. It had a wonderful soundtrack that totally captured the true spirit of the mid-late twentieth century New Zealand in which the strip was set. Incidentally, I am never quite sure whether to thank or boo Jason Yungbluth for ‘weaponizing’ Peanuts. Brilliantly realised and told, but, uh…yeah.

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    1. It’s very hard to do a plot the length of a movie out of a comic strip, even considering that Peanuts had some complete story lines that ran six or eight weeks long. (Most of those were done in the 1970s, when the strip was working its way toward being a comic-narrative strip, like Walt Kelly’s Pogo without so much raucousness.) They did manage it expertly twice for Peanuts though. A Boy Named Charlie Brown expanded on a two-week spelling bee story into a gentle but magnificent strip. Snoopy, Come Home similarly grew from a loose story about the mysterious Lila into a flawed but potent movie.

      Giving up on a plot altogether might work, too. The musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is excellent and it doesn’t even try to be a story. It’s just a string of scenes put together.

      I have heard about Footrot Flats, though I don’t think it was available easily online where United States readers could appreciate it. I didn’t know there was a movie and I should try finding it.

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  2. You’re right; your thoughts mirror mine. And I think one of the issues, as I grazed upon briefly elsewhere, is that there’s so much there that’s a sop to the fans, and yet so much there that goes “outside the box” though not in a memorable way. It’s been a week or two now since i’ve seen it, but this film is verging on the forgettable. The message of the film is “This is pretty much all the stuff Peanuts used to be; do you kids out there think you might like it? Because we can’t modernize it for you any more than we have.”

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    1. I think you’re right. The stuff in the Peanuts Movie that goes beyond the canon doesn’t really succeed, not for the most part. I suppose that’s partly bad luck and partly inexperience. It’s hard to get characters and plot right the first time. Well, like you’d noticed, even Schulz needed a couple years of daily strips before his characters had anything to them. A reunion movie (which this might as well be) doesn’t have that experience.

      I suspect that if Schulz lived and were still drawing the strip, he’d have done some modest bits of modernization. At the least he’d have figured out which characters could have cell phones and what they might do on the Internet and the like.

      But that probably wouldn’t have been very much and it would still be a little weird. Peanuts is always weird when it interacts with the contemporary. And that’s even when it was talking about stuff contemporary to its late-50s/early-60s suburbia-ready-for-Stan-Freberg-records setting. It’s just its own little world, the way a Jeeves and Wooster novel is, and audiences have to take it or leave it as such.

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  3. I was curious as a Popeye fan what did you think of the Robin Williams adaption?Ether critiquing what was actually filmed or analyzing what you think they did right or wrong in the way they adapted or attempted to adapt the Thimble Theater supporting cast. I’m sorry if you already posted your opinions on it, but my search under the tag Popeye seemed to just pull up cartoon reviews, interesting in their own ways.

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    1. Oh, I could go on at dangerous lengths about the movie. Mostly, I really like it. A whole lot. I think its only major misstep is that it underplays how this is the Popeye Origin Story. There’s a throwaway line early on about Popeye not wanting a can of spinach, and that’s almost the only hint you get that he isn’t Popeye The Sailor Man yet until he’s been captured by Ray Walston. And by that time it’s so late in the movie I can’t blame the audience that didn’t want to rework what it bought of the story.

      Past that, though, the cast, the set design, the production, the rambling story; it’s hard to figure a more satisfying production, at least to me. I also like the songs, although there again I understand people not wanting to make the effort to clearly hear stuff like the Sweethaven National Anthem. They’re rewarded if they do (“God must have landed here/why else would he strand us here?”) but, I know, 70s New Hollywood Robert Altman sound design. I can’t fault people not wanting to make that much effort to see Popeye punch Bluto.

      A fun side thing about this is that the studio was expecting Popeye to be a major hit, a piece of Americana to stand beside The Wizard of Oz. So they had a lot of documentation and made a lot of tie-in and making-of books. It’s really easy to learn amazing amounts about the production, written from the point of view of people who figured they were making the biggest thing since Star Wars. And it is really, sincerely, interesting.

      (For example, they really wanted Eugene the Jeep for the boxing/gambling subplot, but they couldn’t work out a way to have him work. So his powers of foreseeing the future were transferred over to Swee’Pea, explaining that oddity. No less fascinating to me: Jules Feiffer felt so overwhelmed by the cultural import that Popeye and characters had, when he started writing the script, that he had to give them pseudonyms for a couple of days until he felt comfortable with the story as it was going. You don’t see oddness like that in the making of Private Benjamin.)

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  4. Thank you for your thoughts. My brother saw the film in the theater and said it was the only film he ever fell asleep during. I like how everytime I watch it I catch some new bit of business in the background– probably the only non ZAZ Brothers film I can say that about. The music is hit and miss I like “Everything is Food” and I like the usage of that comic, Bill Irwin,I believe his name is, he had a show on Broadway a few years ago doing various pantomimes and was well used here, I thought,mimicking a cartoon style beat down.

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    1. I’m sorry to hear your brother fell asleep! Although I do understand. The movie has got that kind of 70s sound design where everything’s just muddled enough that it feels a little drowsy.

      But yes, there is so much in this movie to keep discovering. Even the stuff that’s overt can be wonderfully imagination-capturing: there’s a bit where someone says to his wife, “Now remember, dear, it’s my turn to be tall” and I have no idea what that even means but it’s one of my favorite movie quotes of all time.

      ‘Everything Is Food’ is such a brilliant song. There was an era when I thought about it every time I went to the hawker center for lunch.

      Bill Irwin I hadn’t known anything of significance about but now I’ve found on Wikipedia that he performed at the 1996 Olympics, “in a “band on the run” sequence where he played Dr. Hubert Peterson of the fictitious Federation of United Marching Associations of America”. This is so Bob and Ray an idea that I don’t even have to see what he did to love it.

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  5. Was Mr Oyl’s line “we owe them/they owe us an apology” from the original comics? I like how Ms. Oyl solved the question of Popeye’s last name recently repeated in the daily comics by calling him Mr.Eye. I’ve heard that in one scene (I forget which one) a cigar is on the floor in a conspicuous spot as a tribute to Mr Segar’s signature, but I’ve never noticed it in all the times I’ve watched the film. Was there ever a creator acknowledged last name for the sailor in the comics?

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    1. As far as I remember there weren’t any particular lines about owing or being owed an apology in the Segar-written strips. But it’s been a while since I read the Complete Popeye books and I might have forgotten it. And I know basically nothing about the Sagendorf-written strips from the late 30s through to the late 60s. (The late 60s to mid-80s strips get rerun on Comics Kingdom so I’m a little better off with those.)

      I, too, have not noticed the cigar on the floor. I can believe it’s there since it makes too much sense, but I’m one of those viewers who will get crazily distracted by the implications of the technology of the story’s premise and never notice that, like, they switch actors two-thirds of the way through the movie because they ran out of money for the real star. So I’m only kind-of alert when I watch movies.

      To the best of my knowledge they never gave Popeye a canonical last name in the comics. This did come up in one of the Sagendorf-era stories rerun in the past couple years, though. It was, as many great stories about the world’s greatest seafarer will be, inspired by the decennial census. Olive Oyl, as census-taker, refused to accept that Popeye didn’t have a middle and a last name since everyone has one, and this set Popeye off on a quest of self-discovery. It ended up, like most Sagendorf strips of that era did, petering out without quite accomplishing anything, and never answering what Olive’s middle name is then.

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