Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Peanuts Movie



Director: Steve Martino
Starring: Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Mariel Sheets, Alex Garfin, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Troy "Trumbone Shorty" Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Melendez
Running Time: 88 min.
Rating: G

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Supposedly, there were some rules laid out before production began on The Peanuts Movie, the first full-length feature for Charlie Brown and the gang since 1980, and the characters' first reappearance since the comic strip folded following creator Charles M. Schulz's death in 2000. When you hear about these ground rules (and they're good ones), set by forth by his sons, writers/producers Craig and Bryan Schultz, it starts to make a lot more sense how it took so long for the movie to finally get made. Flying in the face of nearly everything consumed today for family entertainment, Peanuts is unique, and what makes it so can't simply be replicated with an "update" or "reboot," at least while retaining the original's essence.

We found all this out the hard way with the live-action Dr. Seuss adaptations, one of which proving a 30-minute cartoon from the 60's can carry more narrative power than a big budget, star-driven spectacle that sucks more joy out of Christmas than The Grinch himself. The Muppets enjoyed a mini-resurgence, but we'd be kidding ourselves by claiming that franchise (or the entertainment world) ever truly recovered from losing Jim Henson, as their recently cancelled ABC series proves. But if these revived properties are competing with nostalgia and childhood memories, it begs the question of whether they even stood a chance. It only makes sense that it's now Peanuts' turn.

It's somewhat fitting that the director of The Peanuts Movie, Steve Martino, previously helmed Horton Hears a Who!, the only well-received recent Seuss adaptation and the first to entirely use computer generated technology. The biggest worry surrounding a rebooted Peanuts was the inevitability that Schultz's hand-drawn animation (so instrumental in conveying the warmth and melancholy of that universe and its characters) would be replaced by slick, computerized coldness. And in 3-D no less. The thought of Blue Sky Studios screwing up Peanuts is disappointing, but them screwing it up like THAT, on its 65th anniversary, is almost too much to bare. Then comes the added challenge of doing justice to the character of Charlie Brown, a creation through whom many children and adults see themselves.

A nervous, insecure failure or sorts, there's rarely been a children's character that's felt as real or genuinely inspirational in his refusal to give up. Luckily, The Peanuts Movie captures that while managing to create a look and feel that remains at least in the general spirit of Shultz's work. Is it as strong as the animated films from the 70's like Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown? Of course not, but they really only manage to get one thing horribly wrong, otherwise crafting an endearing story that caters to the fans and should have no problems pleasing uninitiated audiences of all ages.

Shy, awkward Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) seems to be constantly failing at everything. Whether it's kicking the football, test taking, or flying a kite, he's somehow capable of finding endlessly new ways to screw them up.  But when the Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) moves into the neighborhood, he quickly becomes infatuated, making a pact with himself to master new activities to gain confidence and eventually impress her with his talent. Unfortunately, he's too scared to even talk to her and when all his attempts at picking up new skills lead to disaster, opportunity arises in the form of a school project he hopes will gain her attention.

With good-hearted sister Sally (Mariel Sheets) and best friend Linus (Alex Garfin) urging Charlie Brown on, he receives questionable psychiatric advice from Linus' aggressively loud-mouthed sister, Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), who seems more concerned with gaining piano prodigy Schroeder's (Noah Johnston) affections than helping her arch nemesis. As always, Charlie is shadowed by his loyal pet beagle Snoopy  and his chirping sidekick, Woodstock, both of whom are fully immersed in Snoopy's World War I flying adventure novel, in which he must save Fifi the poodle (Kristin Chenoweth) from the clutches of the Red Baron.

One of fans' biggest fears is tempered right away, as the computerized animation looks good, but not too good, bringing proper life to characters we've only previously seen emanate from Shulz's drawing board. As expected, it doesn't quite contain that same warmth or personal touch, but as much of their personalities and physical quirks shine through as was possible under the circumstances. While I'm in full agreement with those lamenting the extinction of cartoons on the big and small screens, that debate already feels lost, and if it's between that or no Peanuts at all, I know which I'm choosing. There's a concerted effort from Martino to preserve and at times visually recreate nostalgic touchstones of the strip, such as Lucy's aforementioned psychiatric booth and the skating pond. And as mandated, there are no iPhones or tablets, with Snoopy typing on his trusted typewriter and corded telephones in sight.

All of these cosmetic issues may seem like minor details to those unfamiliar with the strip, but this brand is so steeped in tradition that a misstep on any one of them would be glaringly obvious, derailing the film and upsetting fans. In this particularly rare case, they're not merely "creative choices," but kind of an invisible contract that extends far beyond the legal department of a studio. The same is true for the music, with composers Christophe Beck and David Benoit handling the score and finding places to incorporate Vincent Guaraldi's classic themes, most notably his legendary "Linus and Lucy."

Meghan Trainor's more contemporary contribution (in the form of her single, "Better When I'm Dancin'") doesn't feel out of sync with the action, making for a fun diversion while also tying nicely enough into the story's themes. While even going so far as to resurrect Snoopy and Woodstock's original voice from archival recordings of Bill Melendez, the filmmakers obviously took great pains insuring that all the necessary boxes were checked going in. Most of the other voices are even provided by actual children, lending an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

It's unfortunate that aside from his one-on-one interactions with Charlie Brown, Snoopy is easily the worst element in the film, with his Red Baron sub-plot too frequently pushing aside his owner's far more engaging "A" plot with The Little Red-Haired Girl. It's not a stretch to call Snoopy's excursions filler since it seems as if that's exactly what they were intended to do: Fill time. With a running length short of 90 minutes and Martino having to recycle familiar plot points in the Peanuts universe, it was inevitable that the popular Snoopy would need a showcase. But boy is that showcase is a bore, causing me to dread any moment he starts typing away at his doghouse, knowing we'd be temporarily transported from Charlie Brown's struggles into a lifeless fantasy action sequence. Did the Red Baron material always seem so inconsequential? Maybe it's just an age thing, but it's hard for me to imagine that kids wouldn't also be fidgeting in their seats during this. 

Wisely, the screenwriters put Charlie Brown and all his insecurities front and center with the pursuit (or rather active avoidance) of his crush. Those familiar with the plot will deem it a worthy story choice for his theatrical return since it allows the writers to take him on a journey of self-discovery and remind fans what they love about the character. A new generation of audiences won't miss a beat either, as it's a simple, relatable one that's told well. In thinking he's screwing up again and again in front of the Little Red-Haired Girl, it's those very mistakes that turn out to be tiny triumphs in the end.

There's this clever meta subplot with Charlie Brown experiencing a glimpse of fame and adulation that ends up being short-lived. He can have little victories here and there, but this really wouldn't be Peanuts if he felt like a winner all the time, or even at all. His most endearing quality is how frequently he dusts himself off and keeps trying in spite of all the obstacles life throws his way. This thankfully remains in tact here, even if it does seem as if a certain authorial voice is missing that made the animated screen outings of the 70's and early 80's a little wiser and more in touch with the challenges of being a kid. That absent voice is obviously Schulz's. While it's impossible to gauge what his reaction to The Peanuts Movie would have been, it's safe to assume he'd be pleased audiences still remember, and that producers didn't abandon his formula.

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