It may seem hard to believe, but the famed comic strip Peanuts has more in common with South Park than you think. Granted, the late Charles Schulz’s targets were a lot less pointed than those of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, but both cartoon concepts sought to combine the trials and tribulations of childhood with the events of the day. Charlie Brown and company didn’t throw F-bombs or argue controversial positions, but they did mock such at-the-time issues as psychiatry, self-esteem, and at one point, the Vietnam War.
Today, Peanuts is seen as a salve for the preschool set, a nice nostalgic reminder of a kinder, gentler time when all kids had to worry about was impressing the new girl in school, keeping their crazy dog under control, and not being embarrassed in front of their friends and classmates. You’d think this would make for dull post-modern fodder, especially in light of the fact that Schulz’s legacy has, over the years, become more about the past (and those omnipresent TV specials) than anything new (the creator died in 2000, and the strip was retired the day afterward).
Oddly enough, the new CG 3D The Peanuts Movie is a respectful return to form. An elementary school age audience will thoroughly enjoy its adventure and subtle messages. Parents will appreciate the throwback approach, the smile-inducing jokes, and the nods to known elements from the property’s past. The bisecting storylines are not complicated, the action is exciting, and for the most part, the tale of a loveable loser and his attempts to overcome his own self-doubt will resonate with a viewership where such topics as bullying and personal worth are part of the everyday discussion.
Charlie Brown (voiced by an actual child, Noah Schnapp) is that hard luck case, a kid who can’t seem to fly a kite, throw a pitch, or kick a football without it winding up in disaster. His best friends are a beagle named Snoopy (Bill Melendez) who spends his days dreaming of intricate aerial dogfights with his arch “nemesis”, the Red Baron, and Linus Van Pelt (Alexander Garfin) who is thoughtful, but remains attached to the security blanket from his “youth”. Chuck’s main “enemy” is pesky know-it-all Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), school busybody, amateur therapist, and aggressor in most of our hero’s hardship.
When a new little red haired girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) moves into their town, Charlie Brown is desperate to impress her. Naturally, nothing he tries seems to work out. In the meantime, Snoopy and his bird buddy Woodstock get into hijinx and have imaginary battles between the bow wow’s dog house and the Baron’s biplane. You see, there’s a pink poodle named Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth) that he wants to impress, and these make believe adventures play a part in it. Of course, we also get moments with the rest of the Peanuts gang, from Peppermint Patty and the piano-playing Schroeder, to Pig Pen and Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally.
The Peanuts Movie is a delight, but it’s also a dilemma. Those who grew up with the comic (it’s celebrating its 65th anniversary, though it’s been 15 years since original material was created) will instantly recognize the various callbacks to the past: the trumpet-voiced adults. Lucy’s hatred of “dog germs”; Charlie Brown’s battles with anything athletic’ and of course, the various facets of Snoopy’s scattered personality (the flying ace, Joe Cool). Their kids, on the other hand, will instantly be lost, though Steve Martino’s direction allows them to feel like part of the gang.
After the kids get up to speed, you may find yourself reliving these characters through the eyes of a whole new generation. The CG is not all that disconcerting (the character design is faithful to both the old strip and the new technology) and during Snoopy’s duels with the Red Baron, the 3D effect is excellent. Of course, both concepts are trotted out to make Peanuts more appealing to a modern audience, but such enhancements weren’t really necessary. Something doesn’t last more than half a century without striking some more universal chords, and The Peanuts Movie provides a nice reminder of many of them.
Sure, it all still feels a bit calculated, a way of making money in 2015 that wasn’t around when Schulz was in his heyday, and this isn’t the first time the Peanuts explored a medium other than paper or TV. There were several movies made in the ’60s and ’70s, and even a stage musical (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown). All of that is tossed aside here, the core of the comic used as, what one guesses is, the foundation for a whole new franchise. So on some level, there’s a bit of a money grab going on, a fate that has also befallen such positives as the Muppets.
As long as the Schulz family stands behind them, the next round of Peanuts product should be as solid as this. It won’t be as hard-hitting or outrageous as its contemporary competition, but sometimes a nice little breather is just as good. The Peanuts Movie is both old fashioned and new fangled, and within that balancing act is a wealth of good times.