The latest movie to feature Charles Schulz’s iconic Peanuts gang came out this weekend, opening to warm if somewhat mixed reviews, and a respectable $45 million in the U.S. and Canada. Arriving just in time for the holidays, The Peanuts Movie, swinging for the fences with everything in its arsenal of lacquered nostalgia and “aw shucks” Americana charm, is primed to delight families ready for a break from their annual hoarding of meaningless trinkets to present to entitled loved ones.
Early reviews for the film hailed it as an invitation for the next generation to become familiar with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Bilge Ebiri of New York Magazine went as far as to say that “It feels like the return of an old friend.” And that is the consensus here. While most reviewers will go on to point out the film is “dull,” “slow-paced,” or even “boring,” nearly all go on to say that they are happy to be back in the world of Charles Schulz, as painstakingly preserved in a movie that can only be called a bold new retread of old ideas.
There’s nothing particularly nuanced to see in The Peanuts Movie. At 90 minutes, the scant plot is little more than a series of glued-together vignettes that are almost all takeoffs on familiar scenes from either the cartoon shorts or Charlie Brown’s past cinematic adventures (the holiday films included). And yet despite their derivative nature, there is endless charm to the sequences, and a certain freshness leant by the digital update to the animation style.
While the Peanuts may have stepped into the world of computer-generated animation, they have left nothing behind in terms of Schulz’s original style. Their new 3D look is intermixed with a hand-drawn effect that leaves nothing to be desired from an audience coming to see their old two-dimensional comrades on the big screen. For those seeking big adventure sequences, Snoopy’s WWI flying ace shtick is back in full force, adding some pep to a screenplay low on action but high on emotional integrity.
Ultimately the greatest achievement of The Peanuts Movie is succeeding while being essentially dull – particularly in an era of madness marketed to children. Having worked in schools and summer camps for most of my adult life, I can safely say that nothing resonates with kids more than shows like SpongeBob SquarePants or Uncle Grandpa or Adventure Time. It’s no different from when I was a kid and things like Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead ruled the day. Children are often attracted by a certain amount of grossness and mania. And that’s not to disparage these programs – they are fantastic in their own way. The mere fact that a Schulz movie can open and succeed in a market inundated with the likes of Regular Show or Teen Titans Go! is a testament to the value placed on these characters by the American consciousness.
There is immense satisfaction to be had in knowing that Charlie Brown survived a modern-era update. At no point in The Peanuts Movie did he cruise up to the kite-eating tree on his Segway, his earbuds blasting the latest track from Bruno Mars, to meet up with aliens and/or talking animals voiced by Kevin James, Chris Rock, and Melissa McCarthy. There were no weapons. There were no fart jokes. No one did any break dancing (though the moves on Pig-Pen are pretty smooth). Instead Charlie Brown and his company remain as satisfyingly level as ever – their thrills originating from simple childhood pleasures: building snowmen, attending a school dance, or singing (dare I say it?) Christmas carols. Their problems are typical elementary fare: standardized testing, overdue book reports, or simply trying to get along. So much of the appeal of Schulz’s characters resides in their simplicity and their sincerity. Director Steve Martino and the film’s creative team recognize these traits as their greatest asset and are right not to muddy the waters with the neon-and-day-glo appeal of trying to infuse the plot with something outside the realm of the classic story.
At its heart, The Peanuts Movie is still the story of an unlucky kid who feels essentially unwanted and whose exploits often result in a kind of juvenile tragedy. And as we have learned from countless past dealings with Charlie Brown, the inherent goodness inside of him ultimately wins out. It is that relatability that keeps us returning to his story again and again: that if only someone else could see the goodness inside of us, that part of us most deserving of a second chance or a little help from our friends, we could be king.