For at least three generations, the Peanuts comic strips and TV specials created by Charles M. Schulz were a cultural touchstone and a beloved presence in American family life, so it’s astounding to realize that it’s been 35 years since the last feature film based on the property (Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown [And Don’t Come Back!!]) was released. What was even more astounding was to feel a brief but powerful rush of emotion – one that almost led to tears – as the familiar Vince Guaraldi piano theme (played here by David Benoit) and iconic characters filled the screen for The Peanuts Movie, the new animated 3D film directed by Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who) and written by Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, along with Cornelius Uliano.
This writer was part of one of those generations – A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown were unbreakable holiday rituals in our home – and Schulz’s often brilliant combination of innocence and sophistication was deeply ingrained in our psyche. So it’s quite pleasurable to say that The Peanuts Movie recaptures that essence while giving the characters a spiffy but not too altered new look in 3D and making them relatable (hopefully) to younger audiences as well. The movie is fun from start to finish, a little meandering as it approaches the 85-minute mark (the Peanuts probably still work best overall in half-hour segments) but true to the spirit and tone of Schulz’s beloved originals.
To be sure, The Peanuts Movie doesn’t rock the boat – all the well-known jokes and bits are here, or references to them (“No dogs allowed”), and the filmmakers have taken great pains to make sure that the children voicing the actors sound as close as possible to the way we remember them. Archival recordings of late Peanuts animator/director Bill Melendez, who voiced Snoopy and Woodstock, have been used here for those characters as well. The results are eerily familiar – Linus (Alexander Garfin) in particular struck a chord – and new kids such as Noah Schnapp (Charlie Brown), Hadley Belle Miller (Lucy) and Venus Schultheis (Peppermint Patty) all do fine work in recreating the voices first popularized by actors like Peter Robbins and Chris Shea.
The story, such as it is, operates on two tracks – in the first, Charlie Brown agonizes over talking to the new-in-town Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Capaldi) as he also goes about racking up his usual assortment of embarrassments and what he perceives as “failures,” while at the same time Snoopy creates a fantasy tale in which he battles the evil Red Baron in the skies in order to rescue a vivacious female canine named Fifi (voiced, slightly, by Kristin Chenoweth). Both stories are fluffy, low-stakes and largely free of any real tension, and simply provide a framework on which to hang a series of skits and sequences that are all amusing in their own way and build up the same pleasant, fizzy feeling one got watching the specials or the early movies.
Aside from the voices and the musical cues, Martino and the animation team have preserved Schulz’s classic, unfussy character designs even while giving them a little more depth for the 3D viewing experience. Yet rather than go for more detail that could take Charlie, Lucy and the gang away from their minimalist roots, the filmmaking team keep the kids looking like they did in the comics, films and specials – with squiggles, dots and circles for features instead of more fleshed-in faces. The results are still wonderfully expressive and once again true to the original intent.
As mentioned earlier, even 85 minutes starts to feel a bit long for a movie that is, in some ways, so inconsequential (although there is a lesson to be learned, don’t worry). But luckily The Peanuts Movie comes to a nostalgic end just as it might have started to wear out its welcome. And the truth is that there’s no way to add urgency or high-level stakes to this story without losing some of its endearing charm and simplicity.
The Peanuts Movie is meant to bring a nostalgic glow to those of us who grew up with Charlie Brown and his friends, while hopefully introducing them to a new generation as well. On those levels, it succeeds remarkably well. Charlie Brown may perpetually see himself as a loser, but his new movie proves otherwise.
The Peanuts Movie is now playing. This review first ran on Nov. 3.