Charles M. Schulz's much-adored, generations-spanning "Peanuts" comic strip has been adapted into a number of classic animated television specials1965's "A Charlie Brown Christmas," 1966's "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," 1973's "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving," and 1974's "It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown" have all the major holidays coveredbut, amazingly, hasn't been given a feature-length treatment since 1980's "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!)." Since the long-awaited "The Peanuts Movie" was originally announced, there has been understandable trepidation from fans. Would a film made in the twenty-first century have the same quaint, earnest charm as its source material? Would there be an onslaught of superficially hip pop-culture references shoehorned into its story? And as for the computer animation, would a switch away from hand-drawn simplicity squander the very essence of the late Schulz's work? The happy answer to all these questions is no. "The Peanuts Movie" is not only aesthetically beautiful, at once modern, retro and pure, but it also rings resoundingly true.
The central plota clothesline of various vignettes all adding up to a larger wholefinds perpetual elementary-school-aged underdog Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) experiencing his first major crush when The Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Lily Capaldi) moves in across the street. Charlie sees this as his big chance to reinvent himself, but his attempts to impress her from afarat the school dance, during a talent show, etc.never seem to go as he plans. Alas, advice from the know-it-all Lucy Van Pelt (Hadley Belle Miller), who has set up a 5-cent stand in the neighborhood replacing lemonade with psychiatry sessions, is not much help. The best course of action is to finally muster the courage to talk to her, but for a young boy lacking confidence who really likes a cute girl in class, introducing oneself is easier said than done.
If "A Charlie Brown Christmas" imparted a progressive, provocative message about consumerism and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" dealt with faith in a non-sugarcoated manner, "The Peanuts Movie" has a more basic, predictable moral about the importance of being a good person and believing in yourself. Director Steve Martino (2012's "Ice Age: Continental Drift
") and screenwriters Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz and Cornelius Uliano have not exactly thought outside the box when imagining the first theatrical release for the Peanuts Gang, but there is something warm, comforting and all around delightful about a quality family movie in 2015 that is ideal for every age, sure to please 4-year-olds who are discovering these characters for the first time and grown-ups whose memories of Charlie Brown & Co. are inextricably tied to their own nostalgic memories of childhood. The computer animation, meanwhile, is wondrous to behold, keeping the sparse, spatially unbusy imagery of the vintage animated shorts with clean character lines and a newfound dimensionality that transports the viewer to the world in which it is set.
Watching "The Peanuts Movie," one wishes better use could have been made of the supporting figuresamong them, Charlie's best friend Linus (Alexander Garfin) and little sister Sally (Mariel Sheets), straight-shooting classmate Peppermint Patty (Venus Schultheis), her "sir"-spouting sidekick Marcie (Rebecca Bloom), and the perpetually unbathed Pig-Pen (A.J. Tecce)but the heart of the story, as it should, lies with Charlie Brown. The child actors cast as the voices of these established characters are perfection, uncanny sound-alikes of those from the '60s TV specials which continue (for good reason) to be revisited on an annual basis. The timeline of the story, however, is a bit skewed; the vast majority of the running time is set in a snowy, pre-Christmas winter (which, if we're being literal, would mean it takes place mostly in a span of less than a weeka stretch), and then suddenly in the last few scenes time abruptly shoots ahead to the late-spring last day of school. A callback to Vince Guaraldi Trio's magical "Christmas Time Is Here" is also disappointingly used only as a punchline when certainly it could have more organically been incorporated into the narrative. These quibbles are minor in the grand scheme; the filmmakers' hearts are always in the right place.
Love and respectfulness to Schulz and the universal brand he created highlight "The Peanuts Movie." If the story is on the slighter sidein a subplot, Charlie's trusty beagle, Snoopy (Bill Melendez), is still imagining himself a World War I flying ace battling archnemesis the Red Baron across the French countryside, his mission this time getting sidetracked by alluring pink poodle pilot Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth)the proceedings never feel stretched thin throughout its 92 minutes. In plucky Charlie fashion, his antics as he tries to impress The Little Red-Haired Girl do not go as he hopes, but his natural courage and goodness continue to shine through. When he and the object of his affections officially meet, it is a sweet, lovely, poignant moment. Perhaps if there is a sequel to "The Peanuts Movie," we will finally learn The Little Red-Haired Girl's name. Particularly in our current forward-thinking 2015 world, she more than deserves her own identity beyond the color of her tresses.