“Peanuts Movie” Frees Charlie Brown From Charles Schulz

“Peanuts Movie” Frees Charlie Brown From Charles Schulz

The Peanuts franchise has been relatively quiet since Charles Schulz’s death in 2000, so it’s been easy to forget just what a massive brand Charlie Brown and Snoopy were in their heyday. Millions of people around the world fell in love with Peanuts, and The Peanuts Movie serves as an amiable reminder of just how much there is to love about these quirky, vulnerable characters.

If the new movie falls short of the genius Peanuts reached at its height, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Peanuts has very often fallen short of that bar—including during its creator’s lifetime. Hipsters have always wanted to love Peanuts for its subversive wit and iconic style, but Schulz kept blowing his hipster cred on insipid, blatantly commercial products that turned his classic characters into bland shills for themselves.

The advance publicity for the new film, in which the characters are portrayed in three-dimensional CGI, made it look horrendously misjudged: a frenetic, charmless mess. I was surprised to find that in fact, the movie is pretty constantly charming. The creative team, which includes two of Schulz’s descendants (a son and a grandson) in prominent roles, has ably channeled the tone of Peanuts at its most universally winning and its least complicated.

The plot concerns Charlie Brown’s quest to have an actual conversation with the Little Red-Haired Girl. We see, and hear, her—which may seem like sacrilege to old-school true believers who remember that the object of Charlie Brown’s affections was always unseen—but this isn’t her debut. She first appeared in the 1977 animated special It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown. Not only did she appear in that cartoon, she was named (“Heather,” of course) and even got a kiss from Charlie Brown at the school dance.

Compared to the hot and heavy First Kiss, the new movie is relatively restrained—but it’s also much kinder to Charlie Brown than the 1967 special You’re In Love, Charlie Brown, which is essentially a nonstop barrage of insults and humiliations unleashed upon the hapless title character. (That special also marked the debut of “trumpeting” to voice the adult characters, a technique that became so closely associated with Peanuts that the new movie’s producers drafted Trombone Shorty to perform the trumpeted dialogue.)

The most interesting thing about The Peanuts Movie is that it actually supplies Charlie Brown with some character development—which, love it or hate it, constitutes a marked change from the strip in its existentialist heyday, when the kids never learned anything. The movie implicitly acknowledges this with a slyly self-mocking episode that takes place after the credits start to roll.

The fact that Schulz ultimately went along with seeming sell-outs like It’s Your First Kiss suggests that at some level, he came to understand that Peanuts in its original conception was a might chilly splash of water for actual children to process. Of course, that was also what made the strip unique; but as with Jim Henson and the Muppets, it’s impossible to posthumously recapture these characters’ idiosyncratic charm. Given that, this gentle reinvention—suffused with nods to what now might be considered first-generation Peanuts—might have been the best thing the producers could do.

As a lifelong Peanuts fan—a collection of Schulz strips was one of the first two books I ever read (the other was Frog and Toad Are Friends)—I appreciated The Peanuts Movie‘s manifestly loving gestures towards Charlie Brown canon. It’s impressive how many references the producers managed to work in without overly distracting from a narrative that kids new to the franchise can follow.

There’s Patty calling Charlie Brown a “sly dog,” there’s Snoopy’s Van Gogh, there’s Lucy gloating over her can of nickels, and there’s even reference to the kids’ teacher Miss Othmar (though no acknowledgement of Linus’s undying love for her). Most touchingly, the voice of the late Bill Melendez has been preserved for the vocalizations of Snoopy and Woodstock.

It may seem a little macabre to recycle Melendez’s vocals in the context of a new movie, but think how wrong it would have felt to hire some buzzworthy star (my nightmare would have been Seth MacFarlane) to do it instead. In another apt choice, the producers didn’t attempt to update Vince Guaraldi’s beloved jazz score: the movie soundtrack integrates Guaraldi’s original recordings with new orchestral music by Christophe Beck.

Still, there’s an unmistakable difference in how this material is handled. As Michael Schulman points out in his review of the new Muppets show, what originally made the Muppets funny was that they didn’t know they were Muppets. Similarly, the charm of the original Peanuts (to his dying day Schulz hated that name, forced on him by an early editor) was that they didn’t realize how eccentric they were.

Consider the famous Great Pumpkin special, from 1966. It opens—opens!—with a gag that assumes kids will understand what it means to have a document notarized. The central plot then revolves around Linus’s persistent belief in the Great Pumpkin, who of course fails to appear, earning Linus the other characters’ derision—including that of Sally, who joins him in the pumpkin patch on the basis of her own delusional fantasy about Linus being in love with her.

It’s remarkable how many adult themes are incorporated into that concise narrative, which still manages to be accessible to children and to make room for an extended interlude involving Snoopy’s fantasy about being a WWI fighter pilot. (That device is borrowed for The Peanuts Movie, albeit in kid-friendlier form than the darkly expressionist scenes from Great Pumpkin; in a very Schulz-like touch, the kids refer to Snoopy’s imagined conflict as “the Great War.”) What struck me when watching Great Pumpkin this year is that Linus’s belief is never explained: somehow, he just got this bastardized Christmas mythology into his head. That’s funny, but it’s also kind of profound.

The Peanuts Movie doesn’t aim for profundity; its quirkiest aspects are nearly all imported from the strip, and subsequently smoothed out. In Schulz’s strip, for example, the kids were constantly tackling hefty Russian masterworks like The Brothers Karamazov (“whenever I get to a difficult name I just beep over it,” explained Linus) and War and Peace (which Snoopy tried to read to Woodstock at the rate of one word per day).

In the new movie, Charlie Brown does a book report on War and Peace—but this time he actually reads the whole book, and understands it, and writes a cogent book report on it. In the original strip, that’s a feat that would have been in the purview of the erudite Linus, but not Charlie Brown, whose more authentic childlikeness was often played as a gag. Here’s a clip from the first Peanuts movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969).

The Charlie Brown of The Peanuts Movie is a post-forgiveness Charlie Brown—a Charlie Brown who ultimately catches a break, not because of arbitrary fate (as in It’s Your First Kiss) but because he’s a genuinely good person.

In that sense, the movie’s most radical departure from Schulz’s original conception is that it actually takes the characters’ characters seriously: it suddenly matters whether or not Charlie Brown is a good person. Charlie Brown, of course, has always been a fundamentally good person; the cruel cosmic joke of the original strip was that he so rarely reaped any reward for his integrity. What lent the strip its inherent drama, and the kind of resonance that most popular entertainment lacks, was the way that the cartoonist was using seemingly kid-friendly gags to dramatize his struggles with his personal demons.

The Peanuts Movie gives these kids a measure of control over their own fates, which in an odd way seems like the right thing to do. Their creator—who was also their tormentor, and of course his own—is gone forever. You’re finally free, Charlie Brown.

Jay Gabler