Brimming with old-school charm, The Peanuts Movie is a surprising little treat. The 2015 computer-animated movie is directed by Steve Martino without an ounce of risk, which makes the Charles M. Schulz characters go down easy. The screenplay is by Craig and Bryan Schulz, who happen to be the son and grandson of the creator, with the assistance of Cornelius Uliano.
The animated fare presented by Blue Sky Studios has often been of the mediocre-to-terrible quality, with outings like Rio and the Ice Age series dotting the landscape. With The Peanuts Movie, the Connecticut studio scales it back and delivers simple pleasures. It is decidedly retro, with no attempts at updating or altering the Schulz world. That’s a good thing.
Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) has a crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi) after she’s introduced as the new girl in class. Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller) tells him to be more confident and he attempts it, initially hoping to win her favour by winning the school talent show. That doesn’t go well. He tries dancing next, but that plan also goes awry.
Meanwhile, Snoopy (Bill Melendez) is working on his story of the World War I Flying Ace as he battles the Red Baron. His love interest is Fifi (Kristen Chenoweth). All the while, Charlie Brown tries to win over the Little Red-Haired Girl. He’s even paired with her to write a book report, but she’s away for the weekend. Nothing quite works out for the poor lad.
The story of Charlie Brown is, of course, the story of failure. He lacks self-confidence and doubts nearly every good thing that happens to him, like when the Little Red-Haired Girl volunteers to be his pen pal for the summer. He struggles with his eternal shyness, but he endeavours nevertheless and subsequently resembles the spirited hero.
The Peanuts Movie sets the character as the logical centre and runs through a series of strips. At one point, Charlie Brown is somehow dubbed a genius and other students don his iconic shirt as a show of their devotion. This, too, takes a turn. Through it all, Charlie Brown never gives up his characteristic pursuit of the right thing.
Martino wisely leaves the formula alone and creates an extension of the Peanuts universe while maintaining the core. The kids still use pencils in class. They talk on rotary phones and at one point Charlie Brown is tangled in the snaking cord. Snoopy types his story out on a typewriter and there are no tablets or smartphones to be found. It’s rather refreshing.
There are no cheeky pop culture references, either, and The Peanuts Movie maintains a genial spirit. It still delves into the psychological problems suffered by some of the kids and Lucy still dispenses “advice” for a nickel, even if Charlie Brown momentarily steals her clientele with his stroke of virtuosic vigour.
The other characters are present, too, and the voice acting is superb in its recreation of classic virtue. The adults are still represented by the “wah-wah” noise. This time, it’s New Orleans-based jazz musician Trombone Shorty doing the honours. Of course, the unique language spoken by the older folks represents the separation between Charlie Brown and the rest of the world.
The world of the Peanuts characters is a decidedly flat one and Martino’s version doesn’t upset the apple cart that much, although it does bend things a little too far when it comes time for Snoopy’s various flying adventures. These scenes feel more lively and modern than the rest of the picture, even if they still rely on old-fashioned warplanes and a little classic physical comedy.
The animation has the look of ersatz hand-drawn stuff, with bushy lines and cheerful colours illuminating the story. Schulz’s unsteady lines are consecrated, from the opening snowfall to little thought bubbles that reference the past. And the design of Charlie Brown remains much the same, complete with bulb nose and curlicue.
The Peanuts Movie is an enjoyable, cute animated feature. It’s not earth-shattering in any way and it doesn’t dig deep, but that’s not really the point. This is a movie that understands nostalgia and plays to it, often lifting entire lines from previous adventures and ensuring that the greatest hits are around for another go.