Review by Rob Vaux
Few phrases set critics’ teeth on edge like “bold reimagining.” With Hollywood busy devouring its own tail, not a single existing property is safe from some form of 21st century reboot. Some work, most don’t, but all of them have that greasy, cynical sheen to them: the sheepish admission that we’re getting leftovers instead of something genuinely new. The Peanuts Movie clearly stems from that equation, using modern CG animation to give us another variation on characters we know by heart.
But something happened on the way to making Peanuts newer and hipper. The filmmakers took a good long look at the soul of creator Charles M. Schulz, and then decided to stick with the blueprints he gave them, rather than perverting Charlie Brown and his friends into something unrecognizable. The price is some excessive familiarity and a very slow development. In exchange, we get the gang exactly the way we remember them, and their message is still as surprisingly sweet as ever.
For a 90-minute movie, it feels very similar to those classic TV shorts which serve as ideal inspiration. Sadly, a number of characters get short-shrift, relegated to a few classic moments and left largely on the sidelines. That can cause some frustration, though at least they cede the time to the two real stars: Charlie Brown and his dog Snoopy. Everyone’s favorite sad-sack kid is still fighting uphill, trying to get his pitching up to snuff in the middle of winter and flying a kite that wreaks havoc across a whole skating pond full of kids. The film soon settles down with the arrival of the Little Red-Haired Girl, who Chuck instantly falls in love with. Trouble is, he just can’t stop tripping over his own shoelaces in his efforts to get her to notice him.
It’s slight material, but it has to hold the whole film, interspersed with large chunks of Snoopy doing what he does best. Peanuts finds an elegant way to marry two of the beagle’s classic alter-egos, as his hack writer spins a tale of the famous World War I flying ace squaring off again the Red Baron. Those sequences actually come closest to derailing the whole thing; for the first time, we actually send Snoopy into the sky on his dog house, zipping around blimps and Parisian rooftops in endless battle with his cursed nemesis. It’s fast-paced and even cute, but still smacks of trying to goose the slight story, and often ends up pushing harder than it should.
Luckily, those sequences never lose the essence of Schulz, even at their most corporate. Woodstock and his little friends serve as Snoopy’s ground crew, for instance, and we periodically flash back to the beagle slinking through the neighborhood in his flight goggles to remind us that it’s all taking place in his head. (“Chuck,” Peppermint Patty grumbles into the phone as he shimmies across her Christmas decorations. “Your weird dog is over at my place again…”) Director Steve Martino finds that balance with deceptive ease, and whenever the film threatens to become too garish, he brings it smartly back into line.
That lets Charlie Brown go through his paces with the gentleness and slightly sad wisdom that have defined the Peanuts for generations. He faces temptation in the form of the things he always wanted – validation, acceptance, respect – and in the process delivers some lovely, simple lessons about doing the right thing and staying true to yourself.
The flaw in all of that is that we’ve seen it before, and having set up a nice nostalgic vibe, Peanuts proves utterly unwilling to move the slightest bit beyond it. That certainly beats the alternative, and it’s not strictly a complaint: merely a statement of what this movie values, and an admonishment that the cost of its sweet spirit is a slow and sometimes dull pace. I think most of us would take that deal, and even accept that Linus, Schroeder and the rest of the supporting cast don’t have as much time as we might like. The rest of The Peanuts Movie finds all the right things to show us, and reminds us why we loved them so much in the first place.