Monday, April 4, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Theatrical release:  11/6/2015
Director:  Steve Martino

Craig Schulz had a fine idea:  a seventeen-minute Peanuts short featuring two of his late father's greatest storylines.  Charlie Brown's obsession with the Little Red-Haired Girl and Snoopy as the World War I Flying Ace vs. the Red Baron.  Craig's own son Bryan (himself a screenwriter) told his dad that his script tried to do too much in too little time; why not work together on a full-length movie?

Eventually, the Schulz family knew, someone would come along and make the fifth Peanuts film.  Charles Schulz' beloved universe had not blessed the big screens since 1980's Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown, and while that offering didn't set the box office ablaze, the Peanuts brand had maintained a strong worldwide presence.  People know Charlie Brown and Snoopy, people trust Charlie Brown and Snoopy, people spend money on Charlie Brown and Snoopy.  Avarice often trumps artistry, and outsiders--no matter how well-intentioned and/or talented--couldn't possibly encapsulate what made Peanuts so unique.

So in 2010, Craig and Bryan (along with Cornelius Utiano) developed a treatment that they then submitted to 20th-Century Fox.  Enter Blue Sky Studios, a computer animation film studio best known for Ice Age, Rio and not being Pixar Studios.

Wait, CGI Peanuts?  Predictably, large swaths of the Internet were disgruntled.  Blasphemy at best!  Betrayal at worst!  If Charles Schulz didn't write it, it's not Peanuts!  (Quick, someone inform the This Is America miniseries!)  Nightmare scenarios of Snoopy typing the Great American Novel on an iPad and Lucy telling Charlie Brown that his neurosis game was "on fleek" abounded.

I have always been of a mind that change is neither intrinsically positive or negative.   Change, once instigated, must be permitted to play out.  My only major concern had to do with the voices.  The Peanuts kids had always been voiced by, well, kids.  I had no doubt that would continue.  But ever since Aladdin, studios sought big-name actors and actresses to bring animated characters to life.  Surely, hopefully, Blue Sky wouldn't insist on adult speaking roles to be handled by the likes of Steve Carrell or Ellen DeGeneres? 

The first extended trailer sent a joyous jolt into my nervous system.  My mouth lost its moisture, my heart lost its composure, and despite the questionable soundtrack, I lost my patience.  November?  Screw that!

But, before I knew it, I was in the theater on a crisp fall afternoon with a dear sweet friend getting reacquainted with some other dear sweet friends.

STORY:  All is winter, all is well.  Then the new kid arrives.  It isn't until the next morning, though, that the kids get their first glimpse of this fresh-faced factor.  Charlie Brown is instantly smitten with this little red-haired girl, whose actual name is unimportant, as names are for tombstones, baby. 

Determined to make a positive impression on this grandly-coiffed angel, Chuck enters the school talent show.  His competence as a magician is surprising, but his large heart is not.  As gratifying as it was to save his little sister's rodeo act from complete disaster, no one but the two of them knew it was him under that dopey cow costume.  Fortunately, another opportunity to prove himself worthy beckons--school dance.

Under the tutelage of the World Famous Dance Instructor, Charlie Brown develops into quite the passable mover of feet.  Self-confidence can't be taught so easily, though, and up until the moment of truth, he's a trembling mess.  Once the heat of the spotlight shines on his bowling ball dome, he transforms into a wondrous flurry, driven as much by the vision of a slower dance at evening's end as the cheers of his schoolmates.  Nothing can stop him...except for a puddle of spilled punch.  One clunky brown shoe flies upward, setting off the sprinkler system and soaking the gymnasium.

Typical loser Chuck.  But, classic steadfast Chuck as well. 

A book report assignment pairs Charlie Brown with his infatuation object, seemingly the best chance for the flustered youth to come clean.  Before they can tackle page one together, however, he learns that she's temporarily out of town with family.  Another setback, another opportunity; on the unlikely advice of Peppermint Patty, Charlie Brown decides to write about that legendary literary behemoth, Leo's Toy Store, by Warren Peace.

As soon as he decides to undergo the solo mission, Chuck is waylaid with news that no one saw coming.  Results of the school-wide standardized test have been posted, and one student has achieved the first-ever perfect store.  Shermy?  Shermy, hell.  Just like that, the blockhead is Big Cheese, with his peers practically falling over themselves to praise his super-genius.  (Meanwhile, Sally proves to be as besotted with the acquisition and accumulation of "tens and twenties" as ever, hawking merchandise based on her brainy big brother.) 

So when it turns out that Leo's Toy Store by Warren Peace is actually War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Charlie Brown refuses to "Aauuugh!" Rather, he zig-zags over the snow with a book fit to use as a sled and crafts a one-page book report. 

The Little Red-Haired Girl returns just in time to attend the special school assembly awarding Charlie Brown for his unprecedented academic accomplishment.  Intensely aware of a very special pair of eyes on him as he accepts a medal, Chuck does not see the clunky brown shoe about to plummet back down to earth.  (We do, but we can't warn him.)  He's handed his legendary paper, his perfect test...and realizes that it's actually the smiley-faced crap shoot completed by Peppermint Patty.  He--and we--suddenly remember earlier in the movie, when the two of them raced to the teachers desk to hand their work in, so rushed that they had to be reminded to sign their names.  Which they did.  On the wrong sheets of paper.  A blunder that's far from mind-blowing but close to heart-breaking nevertheless.

Charlie Brown refuses the medal and leaves the auditorium.  His hopes hinge on the book report, which Linus praises for cogent insight.  There's still a chance, still a chance...yeah, still a chance for the book report to wind up airborne where it's torn to flakes by a renegade toy plane. 

Charlie Brown trudges home.  The very model of perseverance has apparently been thwarted one time too many. 

The last day of school arrives, and all I can say, I wish any of my school years flew by so quickly.  Chuck is still desultory, but not so defeated that he isn't prepared to eschew all fanciful effort and just be upfront.  He still has the Little Red-Haired Girl's pencil, so he walks over to her house, only to discover that she's set to leave for summer camp.  She's not gone just yet, so cue frantic run through the school carnival and fortuitous entanglement with a kite. 

Finally face-to-face with the sainted lass just before she boards the bus, he hands over the she-bitten writing implement and receives a wonderful gift in return.  The gift of self-realization.  Instead of just saying "thank you" and taking her seat, the Little Red-Haired Girl proceeds to tell Charlie Brown that she wants to keep in touch over the summer and then explains why:  his selfless nature, his honesty, his solicitude.  She departs; he regenerates. 

The other kids--even Lucy and Violet--have to admit, Charlie Brown is pretty good ol' after all, and give him a victory ride.

The Peanuts Movie quelled fears and surpassed expectations.  Certain viewers expressed disappointment at a perceived lack of innovation and felt the supporting cast had been given short shrift.  Two charges that had been levied at the strip during the last two decades of its five decade run, in fact, with blame falling primarily on the shoulders of an adorable beagle with a dazzling imagination.

And wouldn't you know, the B story of The Peanuts Movie involves Snoopy's Flying Ace reveries.  Snoopy really wants to join the others in school, to see this new kid up close, to laugh as the toy Fokker DR.1 plane that Linus brought for Show and Tell goes haywire and flies out of the school, but instead he's caught, deposited into a dumpster, and winds up with a typewriter.  (Classic writer metaphor lurking in there.)  Atop his doghouse, seeking inspiration, the plane buzzes the beagle.  Wait, Fokker DR.1?  Wasn't that the plane piloted by...

CURSE YOU RED BARON!

The Flying Ace must stop the bloody Baron before he can close his creepy clutches around the pretty pink poodle pilot Fifi.  Throughout the film, Snoopy uses the follies and foibles of his owner as inspiration for this tale of romance, intrigue and danger.  It proves a super counterpoint to the A story, keeping the viewer engaged while showing off what Blue Sky technology is capable of. 

The Peanuts Movie was never going to delve too deep into the bleaker side of the original strip.  When trying to win new fans while keeping old ones satisfied, "Happiness is a warm puppy" will win out over "Even my anxieties have anxieties" in the slogan contest.  Those who bemoan the happy ending would do well to remember that Charles Schulz did, every once in a blue moon, allow his plain-faced hero to succeed.  10

ANIMATION

The film begins with...white.  Then, four black lines frame the nothingness.  It's about to be something.

The classic pen-and-paper world fades into a computer-generated one.  That was then, this is now, all in all is same as it ever was.

No, this is not the 2-D world of Bill Melendez, but a magnificent step forward.  The textures on display are so rich they're addicting.  Kudos to the hardworking folks at Blue Sky for embracing the expressive power of Schulz' work and further, for achieving a feat I believed impossible--to make Snoopy appear even more huggable and skritchable

The flight sequences are gorgeously frantic.  The character movements are crisp, clean and lively; above all, they are familiar.  Watching them is akin to sipping hot cocoa from a shiny new mug.  10.

MUSIC

Christophe Beck's score is bright and emotional.  In other words, pretty perfect.  Of course, a few choice Vince Guaraldi originals pop up ("Skating" is the very first song, fittingly).  The concessions to modern sound are Flo Rida's "That's What I Like About You" and Meghan Trainor's "Better When I'm Dancin'."  Both songs fit their respective montages, which helps minimize the damage.  But make no mistake; these are not songs I would listen to otherwise.  9

VOICES

In order to make The Peanuts Movie a true success, the filmmakers needed to hit several key targets.  One of the most crucial:  a top-notch voice actor for Charlie Brown.  Noah Schnapp delivers.  He's such a blockhead he goes from 11/8 to 4/4 before winding up 10/10.  Instantly likable, relentlessly human.

Not much is asked of Francesca Angelucci Capaldi until film's end, when she gives a great "the reasons why you don't suck" speech to Charlie Brown, so she also handles the lightweight duty of voicing Frieda.  7.5

Alex Garfin scored an Annie nomination for his performance as Linus.  The sweet sagacity associated with the character ever since Chris Shea's monumental work in A Charlie Brown Christmas is difficult to replicate, and while I don't put Garfin in that rarefied air, he definitely did a bang-up job--and, honestly, deserved some more screen time.  9

Hadley Belle Miller voiced the other Van Pelt (and also earned the honor of losing to Phyllis Smith last February), and she damn near steals the show with one of the most versatile and least-alienating takes on the irascible girl in the blue dress.  10

A great Sally Brown needs to be utterly juvenile.  A dollop of sweet, a squirt of sour, a splash of silly, and an unearned, hysterical severity.  She also must be good for one or two laugh out loud moments in a world that is more keen on producing chuckles.  Mariel Sheets, nice job.  9

Venus Omega Schultheis must be saluted.  The most resplendent name of any Peanuts voice actor yet.  The first five letters of her last name.  The most outstanding Peppermint Patty since Linda Ercoli in the Seventies.  A good Pep Pat sounds more mature than she actually is.  This is a great Pep Pat.  10

Marcie (Rebecca Bloom) and Franklin (Marleik Walker) are both sweet 8's, if underused.  Patty, Violet, Pig-Pen, Shermy and Schroeder are also featured, yet I don't feel their parts were substantial enough for grading.  No one strikes a false note, let it be said.

Finally, the adults.  Bill Melendez is away, not gone.  Thanks to archival audio recordings, he's Snoopy forever.  Kristin Chenoweth is the token celebrity, but she's perfect; she did, after all, win a Tony Award in 1999 for her portrayal of Sally in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  And what's the harm?  None.  She "voices" Fifi, by which I mean she makes some feminine dog noises. 

But wait, those are just adult voices for animal characters.  What about the actual adults?  You know, the legendary "wah-wah"?  Oh, that.  That is courtesy of New Orleans' own Troy Andrews.  Or, as you may know him, "Trombone Shorty."  Trombone.  Mother.  Fucking.  Short.  Y.  Jimmy Onishi Golden Infinite 10 Award to you, sir.

CHARLIE: BOLD AS LOVE

--Initially I felt bemusement when Linus showed off his toy Fokker and explained the Red Baron.  Likewise at Snoopy and Woodstock's comical awe at the typewriter in action.  Then I remembered, The Peanuts Movie is not just for the long-timer fans.  The studio knew--hoped--that many of those fans would go to the theater with one or two (or more) children in tow, youngsters who would be utterly clue-free about both the Baron and typewriters. 

--This is a true "G" movie.  No innuendo, no pop-culture references for the adults.  I read a few reviews that recommended TPM as the ideal first film for a child, and beyond my bias, I have to agree.  It's pure entertainment.

--The list of student test scores gives some goodies:  a shout-out for the unsung 5, another non-canon last name for Marcie, and best, the full name of the LRHG.  Her first name, Heather, was already given in 1977's It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown.  Her last name, Wold, is the same as her real-life counterpart

--So many callbacks:  dog germs, strip baseball, the talking wall, the psychiatrists booth, a War and Peace book report, and of course, Snoopy personas a-poppin'.  In addition to the Aces (Flying and Literary), he shows off Joe Cool, Snoopcopter, Snoopmarine and my new favorite--Shhoopy

--On the run from the Red Baron, Snoopy crashes a gathering of Christmas carolers and begins warbling along to "Christmastime is Here."  This makes me laugh like a maniac, but I cannot recall that audio appearing in any Peanuts special.  Was it a Melendez outtake?  Audio manipulation?  Someone who knows Steve Martino tell him a blogger broad wants to know.

--No iStuff, no Internet...the only modern additions to the neighborhood are blue recycle bins, and even those share curbside space with good ol' aluminum cans. 

--Only Charles Schulz' friends could call him "Sparky."  That's how he liked it.  When son Craig met with people from the studio to hash out the movie, he told them to refer to his late father as "Sparky."  Not "Charles," not "Mr. Schulz," not "your father." 

--The Flying Ace scenes are just brilliantly animated.  I can't praise them enough.

--Yeah yeah, the football gag gets animated during the end credits, but ahem, Snoopy sibling party!  I damn near cheered in the theater.

--The best ending in the history of film.  I've watched The Peanuts Movie nine times now, and I tear up every single time.

#ADORKABLE

--Thankfully, pandering was limited to this poster.

--Charlie Brown wins today, but you know some fresh hell is in store for that boy tomorrow.

--"I saw him first!"  You sure did, Shermy.

--Snoopy's filler?  Sure.  Like the creme between two chocolate wafers.

--"That's not a real horse!"  "That's not a real cow!"  Thanks, budding Internet reviewer!

--Cameo by Woodstock's little-seen brother, Malarchuk.

--War and Peace is 1,440 pages long.  Charlie Brown wrote his book report on a single sheet of paper. 

--Craig Schulz claims John Hughes was hired to write a Peanuts script.  "It never worked."  I don't wonder.



As Charlie Brown himself says in the film, "You can't go wrong sticking to the classics."

Bringing in over $100 million domestic and in excess of $250 million worldwide, The Peanuts Movie proved the enduring allure of neurotic children and the dog who tolerates them.  Critics (outside of Toronto) responded positively.  The Golden Globes, the Producers Guild, Nick Kids Choice, and critics groups in Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco all recognized it as one of 2015's best animated features.  (Note, no Academy Award nod.  The temerity of those bastards.)  The drive to succeed, to feel intensely and have those feelings not only acknowledged but reciprocated, powered the makers of the movie as surely as it powered Charles Schulz, as surely as it powered Charlie Brown, as surely as it powers millions of people.  It shows.  It tells. 

Peanuts has always been there for me.  This film proved it will always be there for me.  A book, a film, a t-shirt, a CD, a figurine, an interactive toy--any of it, all of it.  When the world and the people within it let me down, I have an instant pick-up.   The Peanuts Movie is another stimulating influence, a warm embrace, a moment of connection and comfort that is recalled with ease and pleasure. 



1 comment:

  1. They should had made Lucy and Snoopy vs. The Red Baron, and that's for the tunes will Flo Rida was okay but that annoying bitch with her stupid tunes don't fit very well in the Peanuts world for me personal.

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