Reactions to The Peanuts Movie will no doubt fluctuate enormously depending on one’s relationship with the comic strip created by Charles M Schultz some 65 years ago. There will be those who see this update of the iconic comic as sacrilegious and an affront to everything that is great about Peanuts, namely its simplistic yet utterly charming vignettes featuring a group of primary schoolers who are the epitome of a diverse community. In an age in which digital animation has proven a box office boon, a Peanuts movie was perhaps inevitable given the ongoing cultural capital these characters continue to enjoy. For many, this update will be seen as a much deserved honour for a comic that has stood the test of time. As a long-time fan of the Peanuts gang, it was with some trepidation that I approached this big screen rendering of a world that has stood the test of time. Pleasingly, the film makers have been meticulous in capturing the looks and personalities of Schultz’s beloved characters.
To understand why The Peanuts Movie exists perhaps requires an understanding of how big Peanuts once was and, no doubt in the minds of studio executives, will be again. The comic strip first appeared in 1950 and at its peak was syndicated to more than 2500 newspapers across 75 countries. Incredibly, Schulz drew every strip himself and the last was published the day after his death from bowel cancer in 2000. Peanuts paved the way for shows such as The Simpsons in that Charlie Brown is a lovable loser, somebody who, like Homer Simpson, fails at almost everything he does. This is certainly not the first screen version of the series as there have been four previous feature films and numerous made-for-TV specials. However, this is the first time that the crew have been brought to life in glorious CG animation. Co-written by Schulz’s son Craig, his grandson Bryan and Cornelius Uliano – who also produced the film with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, The Peanuts Movie draws heavily from stories and events that appeared in the original comic strips.
Obviously, a feature length film has far greater narrative scope than a four-column comic strip and there are moments where the narrative momentum lags a little, but overall this is a delightful story (like all Peanuts stories are) about a group of kids – Charlie, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Sally, Pig-Pen and Franklin – who drive each other crazy but remain the best of friends through thick and thin. When a red-haired girl moves in across the street, Charlie is smitten and the story from this point is simple enough; Charlie tries to work up the courage to talk to her amid mix-ups over test results that see Charlie, momentarily at least, revered by one and all. Snoopy, meanwhile, constructs his own story in which he is a flying ace who engages in all manner of derring-do in a battle with the Red Baron. Charlie is lonely, timid and prone to depression and often the brunt of jokes and pranks form the others, but there is a genuine friendship between them all. All of Schultz’s characters are terrific and Lucy is perhaps the most fun; her delusional sense of self-importance rivalling that of Miss Piggy. Heck, she even dishes out psychiatric advice to the others, such is her sense of superiority.
As expected these days, the animation is superb and both the appearance and personalities of the characters have been captured accurately; everybody looks just as we remember them. The fact that director Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who) has opted for a cast of unknown voice actors – with the exception of Kristen Chenoweth – lends a sense of authenticity that is often lost when high profile performers take on such roles. Whilst this is an update of a most venerable institution, much care has been taken to respect the legacy of Schultz’s work. Less boisterous than many children’s animations, The Peanuts Movie is a pleasant stroll down memory lane for those who grew up with these characters and, who knows, it might just spawn a new generation of fans for what is perhaps the most popular comic strip of all time.