It goes without saying that the typical movie season is filled with films for moviegoers of all ages, and this is especially true among the slate of animated movies that come out. 2015 was no exception. Some movies are clear cash-ins, a mere attempt to pacify children for a few hours so adults can have some peace and quiet, while others are very brilliant works of art. However, while The Minions may have made all the money, and Inside Out was the critical darling that won the awards (and justifiably so) one animated movie that brought a smile to my face from open to close was The Peanuts Movie.
I have watched every single special and read the strip since I was the tender age of three, The Peanuts have always held a special place in my heart and my fondness for a Charlie Brown Christmas is well noted here. Part of it is being born and raised in Minnesota, like the Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, we Minnesotans feel a special sense of pride and kinship with the characters, like we do for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or the music of Prince. You’re talking to one of the countless Minnesotans who was sad when Camp Snoopy closed at Mall of America. But more then a sense of regional pride in the series, it’s just plain good. There has not been a single Peanuts strip that has made me groan and do a face palm the way other comic strips have, and as for the specials, while some are not regarded classics in the way that A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are held, there are far worse uses of 24 minutes of your time then showing any Charlie Brown special to a kid.
Thus, when I saw the first trailer for the film I was excited. Initially, my family had talked about going to see it together over the holidays but our schedules got too busy. So this past week I purchased the Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack ( the collectors pack that came complete with a Snoopy plush toy) and sat down to watch it. I’m not at all ashamed to admit I’ve already watched it three times and love it even more withe each viewing.
Some felt the Peanuts would be a hard sell for a feature film. After all this is a 65 year old comic strip, and it’s most iconic special is half a century old. It’s often all too easy for filmmakers to take a beloved childhood icon like this and attempt to make them hip, edgy and relevant for today’s youth. Superman, a hero I’ve loved as long as Snoopy and the gang has become “dark”, “gritty,” and “realistic”, the once utopian vision of the future in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has taken on the tones of a post 9-11 dystopia in the reboot films, and the less that is said about the controversies surrounding Fuller House or the new Muppets TV show, the better.
Peanuts avoids all that. These are the same beloved childhood friends that not only me, but my parents generation have known since our youth. The filmmakers resist any attempt to make the characters “edgy” or “more adult”. Linus still carries his blanket and serves as a vast fountain of insight. Sally is still sweet and innocent, and ready to be done with school. Schroder is still a prodigy. Lucy is still the boss of everyone. And Charlie…well, he’s still good old Charlie Brown. Snoopy perhaps, had the biggest change. Here, Snoopy acts almost like Charlie’s wing man working to help his best friend get the girl, and comforting him when he’s hurt. Snoopy was always, deep down a good dog, and now we get to see it in full.
Even the technology and culture seems like something of a bygone era. Kids still talk on rotary phones, Linus doesn’t look up Bible verses on an iPad, Sally isn’t obsessed with Twilight or Hunger Games, and Charlie Brown hasn’t abandoned his classic striped shirt, while elementary school goes from first grade to eighth grade, and baseball fields don’t use digital score boards. The Peanuts gang are cultural touchstones and don’t need to be dumbed down like other kids franchises.
The Peanuts Movie was the only film out of nine major animated movies that came out last year that received “G “rating. Nowadays it is seen as a deathblow for a movie to get a rating like this, but there is something comforting about being able to pop in a movie and know it won’t scare the littlest viewers and that the oldest viewers won’t be bored out of their mind or checking their watch. Peanuts proves, as always that “family friendly” can actually be a good thing. After all, this is the Peanuts gang we’re talking about, they never needed to use fart jokes to be funny.
The only “relevant” topic they tackle is that of standardized testing, and they do it in such a way that it is hard not to laugh. Seeing as those tests have been part of the American school system since the 1970s and there is no sign of them going away at any time soon, it only increases the film’s timeless appeal. It is this test that becomes one of the key plot points to the movie, when Charlie Brown somehow gets the perfect score.
This comes as a surprise to him as he was busy daydreaming about the new girl in class, The Little Red Haired Girl. Charlie’s popularity instantly boosts among the rest of his classmates. Yet all he wants to do is win the heart of the girl of his dreams, doing everything from learning how to dance, taking part in a talent show, and not only finishing War and Peace over one weekend, but doing such a great job on his book report that Linus calls it an astounding piece of literary analysis.
Through all of this we see a different type of Charlie Brown, one who is even more determined and hard working then before, all because of his love for this girl. It’s not unlike what Peter Parker, another comic character notorious for bad luck, told his own little red-haired girl in the first Spider-man movie,
“When you look in her eyes, and she looks back in yours, everything feels not quite normal, because you feel strong—and weak at the same time. You feel excited, and at the same time terrified. The truth is you don’t know the way you feel, except you know the kind of man you want to be. It’s as if you’ve reached the unreachable, and you weren’t ready for it.”
More importantly, we’re reminded just why it is we have come to love that round headed kid for so long. Charles M. Schulz always thought of Charlie as the kind of boy he’d have liked to have as a best friend, and throughout the movie we see this. He continually tries to make the right choice, because it is the right thing to do. This shows that he is an honest, decent, compassionate, brave, and determined person. He may be the underdog, but he will never be out of the game. He may fail, but he and his friends bring us a lot of laughs along the way.
Interspersed in the movie, is a fictional story Snoopy is writing. Inspired by Charlie’s own struggle with the unreachable, the beagle tries to tell the tale of the World War I flying ace and his attempts to save his beloved from the infamous Red Baron. Really young children may be confused and bored by it, as they were in the old specials, but this is a movie that is made for fans of all ages, not just the kids running around with the Minions fart canons they bought at Target.
There are only two big names in this movie. Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth voices Fifi, Snoopy’s girlfriend who only speaks in similar animal noises to Snoopy, and Jazz musician Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews as the “voice” of Miss Othmar and other adult characters. Yes, the muted Trombone is back in all its “wa-wa” glory. All the kids are voiced by unknown child actors who were chosen based on (in most cases) how closely they sounded like the original kids from the first specials, namely A Charlie Brown Christmas, and It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. The movie doesn’t need Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, or Melissa McCarthy as Charlie Brown, Lucy, or Miss Othmar. It just needs kids that actually sound like real, honest genuine little kids.
Initially I was worried about the new song from Meghan Trainor due to her being a current pop-star. Thankfully, when I heard her song “Better When I’m Dancing.” I was quickly won over. Due to Meghan’s musical style, which tends to be a throwback to the 1950s, she proved to be a good choice. The song is funny, peppy, and perfect for the story. Unlike many I wasn’t too worried about the animation.
Let’s face it, traditional animated movies are a hard sell these days. John Lasseter tried valiantly to keep Disney’s traditional animation department going and it didn’t work. Kids want computer animation. If the choice is allowing these beloved characters to fade into obscurity or finding some way to introduce them to the children of today, the latter is preferable. However, while they may be rendered in CGI, the characters do not have the “realistic” feel of humans in a Pixar movie, or the cartoony look of Dreamworks. Rather they look like stop-motion figures, which helps recreate the rough, hand-made quality of the specials.
But more importantly, this movie has the same warmth of the old specials. The best animated movies always have a lot of heart behind them, sometimes more than a live action film. The heart of The Peanuts Movie is what makes it a real, genuine, feel good movie. There were just as moments so sweet and loving they brought a tear to my eye, as there were moments that made me laugh. If you are looking for a perfect movie for family movie night, then look no further then The Peanuts Movie.