Yes, it's 3D computer animation, and yes, it shows us more of the face of Charlie Brown's Little Red-Haired Girl than you ever thought you would see. But the news, for the most part, is good: The Peanuts Movie is much closer in spirit to Charles Schulz's half-century comic-strip masterpiece than, say, new episodes of The Simpsons are to the spirit of Matt Groening. The story — concocted by Craig and Bryan Schulz, sons of Charles, and Cornelius Uliano — is low-key Schulz stuff involving crushes, ice-skating, book reports, a school dance, and all the anxiety such everyday life stirs in our hero.
Lucy rhapsodizes about the nickels she earns for her psychiatric advice, the hero mopes that nobody likes him, and the film has more moments of stillness and sadness than you would ever expect from a studio kids picture. There's too much WWI dogfighting, but that's the same as it ever was. What's surprising — even wondrous — is how often Schulz's precisely crooked line work informs the big-budget gloss. It's there in the tufts of dust kicked up by Pig-Pen and the lumpish globs of snowflakes. But most importantly it's in the faces, in the mouths and eyes and Schulzian worry lines, all sketched in with the raw expressiveness of pen on paper. Congratulations to director Steve Martino and his team: When's the last time a computer-animated feature showcased the power of cartooning?
Remember, the spirit of Schulz's creation has always been negotiable, anyway, from long before 1984's
The strip was truer to the cruelty and indifference of children than its spinoffs would dare. For TV, Schulz and director Bill Melendez imposed comforting resolution upon it, a promise that for all their anxieties and humiliations the
The filmmakers present Charlie Brown's longing as universal, and perhaps it is. Schulz himself spread the pathos
But such sins of omission are minor compared to all that the filmmakers get right. The story is all typical days and minor crises, following Charlie Brown through a winter and up to the last day of the school year, drifting from moment to moment rather than shoving him through a plot. The feeling, at times, is of taking in several months' worth of strips in one go — not reading them, exactly, as no studio would dare the full contemplative sparseness of those panels where Linus and his pal discuss life at a stone wall. Instead, it's like seeing those comics adapted by devotees of the TV cartoons: Miss Othmar's voice is a muted trombone, the kids' are real kids', and Snoopy's is the upset-tummy growl of Melendez, director of the specials you grew up with. The kids dance. Franklin gets a lot of lines and even, at last, is revealed to have a trait: He's got his class's third best test score! The title card claims this
The Peanuts Movie
Starring Kristin Chenoweth, Francesca Capaldi, Madisyn Shipman, and Noah Schnapp. Directed by Steve Martino. Written by Bryan Schulz, Craig Schulz, and Cornelius Uliano. Based on the comic strip by Charles M. Schulz. 93 minutes. Rated G.