The recent Blu-ray and DVD release of The Peanuts Movie by 20th Century Fox leaves me with a conundrum of how to review it. I want to be fair and approach it just as a current kids movie. How does it compare to current cream of the crop releases from Disney and Pixar? The film is made by Blue Sky Studios, the creators of Ice Age, another groundbreaking movie franchise. The source for this film though goes way back into our cultural DNA. This isn’t some recently created franchise. The film itself is built upon multiple winks to the viewer’s knowledge of the history of the characters. So I’ve chosen to look at how the film fits into the larger tapestry of the Peanuts brand.
The Peanuts series was born in print in 1950. There was a time in the 1960s and 1970s where these characters were the most recognizable on the planet. The marketing for them is a model that even Star Wars is envious of today. We were sending people to the Moon with equipment named after these characters. I don’t remember a Han Solo Space Shuttle. The daily comic series was a part of our lives. I woke up every day and the first thing I did was read Peanuts in the Kalamazoo Gazette. This franchise had a new strip every day, seven days a week for 50 years. They expanded to our sheets, coin banks, toys, comic books, TV shows, movies, and even our insurance. For all but the under-twenty generation, Peanuts is a part of us.
It’s been a long time since we had any new movie or TV material. It’s been five years since anything new and really since 1997 since we’ve had a show that resembled what we expected from the series. I have no problem with the animated design of the film. The drawings and shows have always had that wonderful arty look with the jazzy score. In the best moments, it was like an Impressionistic painting set to jazz. Ultimately the series is about the characters. So creating a detailed set with 3-D-rendered kids gives it a modern look and doesn’t take away from the core heart – the characters.
I have to address a couple issues. The first is that this film is being referred to as a tribute to the classic series. What it is – a tribute to the TV specials and movies. True that those borrowed heavily from the print series but ultimately it counts on direct references to the TV specials. It’s a descending nod from more references to the Christmas and Thanksgiving ones right down through Arbor Day. That built-in audience knowledge is very important. There’s no having to establish characters here. There’s not even a real need to justify the plot. There’s a story. It revolves around the cute new girl moving to town and Charlie Brown trying to impress her. He scores a perfect score on a standardized test and the film ends with a school assembly where our hero faces a moral dilemma.
The press materials call Charlie Brown, an eternal optimist. That’s a nice new way to portray the character. A few decades ago he was the “lovable loser.” I grew up with the daily print version of Charlie Brown and he’s insecure and expects the worst to happen. He’s usually convinced by others (Lucy and Patty most often) that things could be different but he’s proven to come up short every time. I wondered how that was going to play here. Peanuts hasn’t been about happy endings. He doesn’t kick the football, the tree eats the kite, he doesn’t talk to the little red-haired girl, and he drops the baseball to lose the championship. The Peanuts Movie gives him little victories. I’m going to allow that nod to modern storytelling. There would be a disconnect for younger viewers to not see Charlie Brown carried away on shoulders at the end.
Bottom line is that this whole thing works. What strikes me is that they don’t make movies like this today. This is a sweet little film that appeals to younger children and to parents who grew up with the cartoons and even grandparents who might have encountered it only in the newspapers in their childhood. The animation is not distracting and you feel comfortable with the characters almost immediately. The story doesn’t have scary monsters or evil bad guys or anything we’ve become used to lately. There’s no violence or sexual innuendo. And it isn’t boring. The side adventures of Snoopy capture the freedom of the character from the series and gives the animators a chance to flex their muscles. The “dogfight” is one of my favorite animated sequences outside of a Pixar film in a long time.
I would have told the writers to watch the end of A Boy Named Charlie Brown to see how you write a larger loss but show how that life is mostly about the little victories along the way. I don’t think it’s wrong to let kids be sad. I know that Pixar very recently addressed these issues. There’s a feeling that we have to pull back from letting kids be philosophical. But doesn’t saying that they are not really sad create an unrealistic dynamic too? If you say that they’re not really sad, then how do kids feel if they aren’t as happy as the kids they see onscreen? Those are issues that Schulz addressed over the decades in print. I don’t expect this film to lay it all out in 88 minutes.
It’s a wonderful way to bring back these lovable characters. The Blu-ray comes with the usual cast of extras including some fun Snoopy Snippets, the requisite music video (Meghan Trainor did contribute a pretty catchy song) and an interesting “You Never Grown Up, Charlie Brown.” I hold this series to a high bar and I was very satisfied with the final product. Notice I didn’t mention Fifi. Good grief.
The Peanuts Movie is available in a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D, DVD, Digital HD. and a Limited Edition Gift Set that pairs the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray with a small plush toy of Snoopy dressed as a WWI Flying Ace.