Here we go again, on the first Fishing in the Discount Bin of the new year! Taking a look at one of my favourite animated films of 2015, The Peanuts Movie. This is in my notes at March 19, 2016.
Who doesn't love Peanuts? Charles Schulz's classic and highly influential comic strip. As I blogged when the first trailers for the Peanuts Movie came out, Charlie Brown in animation has always fascinated me. More then 50 animated specials, 5 full-length feature films, a Saturday morning cartoon...can you think of any comic strip that's had as successful a second life in animation? The older I get, the more and more I appreciate the message of A Charlie Brown Christmas. And you just gotta love Charlie Brown. No matter how much life kicks him down, he gets up and keeps trying. That kind of boundless optimism is inspiring.
The Peanuts Movie comes to us from Blue Sky Studios. Their most famous franchise is the never-ending series of Ice Age films. You gotta love them, too. The world of computer animated movies is dominated by Pixar and DreamWorks. Blue Sky is like the little brother, trying very, very hard to get noticed. Apparently, the Schulz estate was warm to their pitch for a Peanuts movie because the Dr. Seuss estate speaks highly of their adaption of Horton Hears a Who, calling it the most faithful Dr. Seuss adaptation. And I really do admire Blue Sky's animation here. They don't radically invent the wheel. It's almost "2.5 D" instead of 3D animation, as it's so faithful to the original Schulz artwork that you barely noticed the 3D enhancements.
Much like other big hits of 2015 (e.g. Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), this film drips with nostalgia for its source material. I did one critic who described it as a being a greatest hits compilation for the Peanuts gang. And in a way, that's the highest compliment the film can be given. These characters look and feel like the characters. They didn't do any dramatic reinventions. Charlie Brown gets his clothes blown off when he gets a line drive batted at him. Lucy obsessed over real estate as she dispenses psychiatric advice. Everything is there!
Probably the biggest deviation, but more like an interesting direction, is this is probably the one Peanuts product that spends a lot of time on the "boy and his dog" friendship between Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Snoopy is always there with all his eccentricities to give Charlie Brown a boost and help him out whichever way he can. It's not something you saw a lot of in any other strip or special, and it was kind of neat to see.
Speaking of deviations, another complaint I have is the music in the film. Don't get me wrong, Christophe Beck does a pretty good score. But, as I complained when I first saw the trailers, every time they break into one of the modern-day pop songs, it feels a little out of place. It would have been nice if they were able to stick with the simplistic jazz scores that have long musically defined the franchise.
Anyway, the plot. A new kid moves into the neighbourhood...the fabled Little Red-Haired Girl. Charlie Brown is instantly smitten. The film is pretty episodic, as the cycle is set up. Charlie Brown plans a grand romantic gesture to capture the Little Red-Haired Girl's affection, but he gets all Charlie Brownie and his efforts are sabotaged. Or are they?
There's a school talent show. He's going to do a magic act. But his sister Sally is on beforehand, and she's bombing big time. So he joins her on stage to save her from total humiliation. Or when Charlie Brown gets a perfect score on the standardized test, and becomes the most popular guy in school. At the assembly to honor him, he realizes that there was a mix-up, and he didn't get a perfect score. Any other animated movie these days -- following a formula that was set-up in Aladdin -- would have milked that deception for the entire film until it all comes crashing down on our hero's head at the start of the third act. But, Charlie Brown, he owns up to the mistake right away, and walks away dejected.
And at the end of the film, we see it's these tiny acts of human decency that caught the Little Red-Haired Girl's attention, more so than any grand romantic gesture. When the Little Red-Haired Girl says she saw all that, and that's what caught her eye, and that's why she volunteered to be Charlie Brown's pen pal for summer vacation, I'll be honest, I cried when I first saw it in the theatre. In his final days, Charles Schulz allegedly lamented, "Why didn't I let him kick the football, just once?" Well, finally hooking up with the Little Red Haired girl was that longed-for kick at the football.
But how we get to that ending...I swear to God, they rip off the end of the Disney short Paperman. And composer Christophe Beck -- who also did the music for Paperman -- picked up on it and recycled his music. In Paperman, a man tries to catch the eye of the attractive woman working the skyscraper across the street by throwing paper airplanes at her. At the end of the film, all the paper airplanes magically come to life and push the man and woman together. In The Peanuts Movie, Charlie Brown finally takes Linus's advice. No more attempts at grand gestures, he's just going to go up to the Little Red Haired Girl and talk to her. But it's the summer carnival, and something always pops up to keep Charlie Brown and the Little Red Haired Girl apart. Charlie Brown, under the fabled Kite-Eating Tree, asks the universe to finally cut him some slack. One of the kites drifts down from the tree, tangles itself around Charlie Brown's arm, and drags Charlie Brown over to the Little Red Haired Girl. And right down to the music IT'S THE END OF PAPERMAN!
And there's a fun subplot, too, concerning Snoopy's fantasies as a World War I flying ace. Here's where full, modern CGI comes into play, as they do some spectacularly animated dogfights as Snoopy takes down the Red Baron. I recently learned that, in order to make Snoopy's flying fantasies more convincing in the original animated specials, they never show the bottom of Snoopy's doghouse. To do so would show the doghouse firmly planted on the ground, thus ruining the fantasy. And they continue the tradition here in this movie! Yeah, they fudge it a bit, like having it obscured by clouds or the wing of another plane, but you never see the bottom of the doghouse. And, in the theatre, I was pleasantly surprised to see Kristen Chenowith voiced Fifi, Snoopy's dream girl. That's a bit of a deep-cut Peanuts Easter Egg...Chenowith first rose to fame playing Sally in the early-2000s Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The Peanuts Movie is a great film, and doesn't deviate too far from what we know and love about the Charlie Brown universe.