I usually discuss comic books rather than comic strips on this site. Yet most of us – or at least, most comics readers my age – were first exposed to comics through our local newspapers. And for most of us, the first comic we read was Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts.
The illustrated adventures of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Franklin and all the rest of Schulz’s creations are an American institution. NASA named the command module and landing module of the Apollo 11 mission in honor of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, respectively. And there is a certain poetic romanticism in the fact that Schulz died shortly after announcing his retirement, on the night before his final comic strip was to be published, on February 13, 2000.
Of course Schulz’s death did not stop Peanuts from continuing. Reprints of Schulz’s original comics are still run in newspapers around the world some 15 years later. New stories are told through the licensed comic book produced by KaBOOM! Studios. And now we have The Peanuts Movie.
Produced by Blue Sky Studios – the same team responsible for the Ice Age and Rio films – there were some fears from fans of the original comics when this adaptation was first announced. After all, most classic comic strip and cartoon adaptations miss more frequently than they hit. And with the likes of Alvin and The Chimpunks being exploited in the name of quickly dated reference humor and poop-eating jokes, there was some justified worrying that the original sweethearted innocence of the original strips would be lost. Or – conversely – that Schulz’s cynicism about childhood being the best years of your life would be removed in order to present a sterilized, Hallmark Card version of the world of Charlie Brown.
Thankfully, The Peanuts Movie avoids the pitfalls that plague most modern adaptations of a classic comic or cartoon. The heart of Schulz’s work is very much in evidence in this film, which was written by Schulz’s son and grandson as well as animated-short writer/director Cornelius Uliano. Their script contains a perfect balance of the sentiment and sarcasm that made Charles M. Schulz’s work so memorable.
The only thing Peanuts purists will have to complain about are nit-picky details such as Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin now attending the same school as the rest of the kids or Linus being in the same class as Lucy and Charlie Brown, despite his always having been portrayed as Lucy’s younger brother in the comics. No doubt someone is hard at work on a fanfic explaining this, with notes about redistricting and Linus – always the smartest of the kids – being bumped up a few grades. Personally, I’m content to just call this Schulz’s Earth Two and be done with it.
There’s not a lot of complex characterization or plot to The Peanuts Movie. Most of the kids are easily summed up by one or two traits (Freida has naturally curly hair, Marcie is smart, Peppermint Patty is a tomboy who isn’t good at school, Schroeder loves Beethoven, etc.) and the story focuses upon Charlie Brown’s attempts to win acceptance and impress The Little Red-Haired Girl over the course of half a school year. These attempts are made up of a greatest-hits collection of various story-lines from the original comics, including the school talent show and a school dance.
These moments are interspersed with scenes born of Snoopy’s complex daydreams of being a famous World War I Flying Ace. These scenes are the visual high-point of the film. They showcase just what an amazing job Blue Sky Studios did in finding a balance between Schulz’s art style and their own three-dimensional computer animation.
The Peanuts Movie proves to be both a perfect introduction to a classic comic strip and a welcome slice of nostalgia for those who remember the old comics fondly. It will tug on your heart-strings, even if you weren’t a chaos magnet with a thing for redheads like Charlie Brown in your youth. Because as another great movie with a great theme song pointed out, we’re all a boy named Charlie Brown.