On October 2nd, 1950, a cartoonist named Charles Schulz gave to the world a comic strip that would come to be a lasting franchise in the world and ages to come. The comic strip was called Peanuts, and it focused on the lives and events of a group of children. Most prominent among its characters were Charlie Brown, a boy who is perpetually kicked down by the universe yet keeps on going, and Snoopy, his pet beagle whose own antics and adventures served a light counterpoint to Charlie Brown’s more dour moments. The comic caught the attention of readers fast thanks to the skillful writing of Schulz that went along with his simple but effective drawings. He didn’t keep the kid gloves on with his work, being unafraid of showing how kids could be cruel, how the universe can throw a curve ball and wreak havoc in our lives, or how we can be plagued by our anxieties. However, such a melancholy tone was counterbalanced by a hopeful spirit, one about how life goes on when bad things happen and how people persevere, whether by being a good person or with a little help from their friends. Its spirit and message would strike a chord with readers, giving birth to a franchise that includes numerous animated movies and TV specials, a stage musical, and untold amounts of merchandise. A new addition has been brought to the franchise, in the form of a computer animated film simply known as The Peanuts Movie. Thankfully, the film does a strong job of capturing what made that comic strip so appealing in the first place.
Starting off in winter, Charlie Brown is still the same boy he’s always been, trying his best but frustrated by how every endeavor he follows through on ends in disaster. However, something arrives that offers the chance for a clean slate: a new person has moved into the neighborhood, a little red-haired girl who instantly captures Charlie Brown’s heart. He thinks that, in order to get her, he’ll have to be a winner. As such, he sets out to try to prove himself and become a winner, finding the universe once again at odds with his attempts. Meanwhile, his dog Snoopy has a run-in not only from a toy model of the Red Baron’s plane, but also with a typewriter found in a dumpster. After figuring out how it works, Snoopy sets to work on writing a novel, drawing inspiration from the toy model and from Charlie Brown’s life to tell the tale of a World War I flying ace (basically Snoopy with red scarf and green flight cap and goggles) doing battle with the Red Baron and trying to win the heart of a poodle named Fifi.
Thankfully, the film maintains the spirit of its source material. In a way, it is almost striking how much the movie roots itself not only in the core spirit of the comic strip, but also capturing the feel and methods of the TV specials. The film is computer animated and its world and characters are rendered in a three-dimensional form, but it doesn’t opt to go for showcasing things on a three-dimensional plane. Instead, the framing and shots are largely kept on a flat plane. In fact, the main time it breaks away for a more three-dimensional showcase is during the aerial battles of Snoopy’s novel, keeping the main portion concerning Charlie Brown firmly rooted in the flat plane style. The designs and movements for characters are also modeled off of the TV specials, not only recalling their methods but even at times feeling like stop motion. Along with the 3D computer animation, there is a fair bit of 2D animation that is prevalent in the film as well. Sometimes it is in very clear points, such as in a moment like Charlie Brown remembering past failures. Sometimes it is used to add texture to the scene, whether by adding a touch of pencil lines to give a character’s eyes some added definition or by representing the Red Baron’s bullets with a stream of sketchy dots. The result is an inspired mixture of animation styles that feels familiar, yet unique.
As for the writing? It maintains the core spirit and sentiment of its source material well. Schulz’s message of enduring even in the face of disaster are still preserved with Charlie Brown’s tale of trying to win over the red-haired girl. It adds a new element to it with how, when he’s preparing for his attempts, Charlie Brown is actually good at what he is doing. However, the universe always comes around with a way to pull the rug out from under him or make him choose between his own success or helping others. Thus, it maintains the melancholy that is twinged throughout the original comic strip and specials, though still tempers it with the promise of continuing on. It’s also well-balanced by the side story of Snoopy writing his novel. Honestly, it feels like the film gives the right amount of time to both stories. When it feels as if Charlie Brown’s story has reached a place where his anxieties or failures are hitting hard, the story shifts gears over to the action and humor of Snoopy’s novel. Likewise, when Snoopy’s vignettes hit the breaking point of their chapters, it moves back to Charlie Brown as he gears up for a new attempt. It’s a careful balancing act between Charlie Brown’s heart and Snoopy’s humorous antics, but it is a balance that is well maintained up until an ending that I personally feel is a touch too upbeat. Still, that is a minor quibble with an otherwise well-executed movie.
For children, this is a strong entry point into the world of Schulz’s iconic characters. For those who have already grown up reading the comic strip or watching the TV specials, this is an excellent capturing of a series that can pluck a nostalgic string in your heart. For all, this is a wonderful family film that can remind us of how, even when things are down, people can still keep on going. Sometimes, it means being a good person for just the sake of it. Sometimes, it means having a little help from our friends.