When The Peanuts Movie was first announced, there was a palpable sense of dread surrounding it. It’s not like audiences today aren’t used to studios taking classic cartoons and using them as intellectual property to deliver a substandard update. The original Peanuts comic strip may have ended 15 years ago, but Charles Schulz’s characters have lived on through merchandising, commercial endorsements, and annual broadcasts of the classic television specials, so maybe a CGI film was inevitable. But plenty of properties have been brought to the big screen in less-than-ideal forms. What would keep The Peanuts Movie from going that way?
Thankfully, The Peanuts Movie has arrived on screens with people who care about these characters. To make the film appealing to new audiences, the characters get a visual update that’s still in keeping with their classic appearances. Beyond that, The Peanuts Movie relies on 65 years of material, taking classic bits and crafting a narrative that tells something new.
Anyone who’s watched the old-school Peanuts films and holiday specials won’t be surprised by the film’s loose structure. There’s not a strong plot; instead, the film consists of a series of events – a standardized test, a talent show, a dance contest and a book report. With each of these events, Charlie Brown attempts to impress the new girl in class, the Little Red-Haired Girl, and reinvent himself. In typical Charlie Brown fashion, his plans never work out quite how he expects. But in a surprisingly sweet surprise, the film’s ending looks at Charlie Brown’s actions and finds something heroic in them. It’s not a revolutionary change, but for Charlie Brown, it’s a definite win.
Most of the film is shot in a way that’s similar to the comics and cartoons. The exceptions are a series of fantasy sequences that pop up throughout the film, where Snoopy types out stories of his adventures fighting the Red Baron. As he starts typing, the film moves into his fantasies, where the film takes advantage of the 3D format to show Snoopy flying his red doghouse, firing at enemy planes and chasing his own imaginary love interest, a dog named Fifi (technically voiced by Kristin Chenoweth). It’s quite possibly the best-ever visual representation of Snoopy’s imagination, and it provides The Peanuts Movie with broader instances of humor.
While Charlie Brown and Snoopy dominate the film, other characters and classic bits all get their due. Lucy’s psychiatric stand is open for business, Linus talks about the Great Pumpkin, and when Charlie Brown becomes popular, Sally leads tours of the Brown house and sells Charlie Brown souvenirs. Peppermint Patty and Marcie get notable parts as well, and other minor Peanuts characters pop up throughout the film. In a particularly clever move, after the initial drumroll in the 20th Century Fox theme, the traditional orchestra is replaced by Schroder playing the piano.
Beyond the stories, the film works to keep the production similar to previous productions as much as possible. Chenoweth is the only “name” vocal performer credited; the children are voiced by actual children, in keeping with the traditions of older cartoons, while Snoopy and Woodstock utilize Bill Melendez’s old vocal performances. The music largely sticks to the light jazz sounds that populate the old television specials (though the film does misstep slightly by including a few new pop songs from Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida). Even the animation is surprisingly subtle; there’s texture added to everything, but it’s faint, and the lines on the characters’ faces are made to look like Schulz’s drawn lines, including eye and mouth movements. It all makes the jump to the big screen far less jarring than many would expect.
For adults, The Peanuts Movie is unlikely to win over many new fans. Those who love Peanuts, particularly the later years of the comic’s run, will love what’s presented, and those who aren’t fans won’t. But this is a great way to introduce the world of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang to young audiences, and it’s clever and funny enough to appeal to audiences of all ages. Thankfully.