Charles Schulz’s legendarily lovable Peanuts loser Charlie Brown always failed, then triumphed, then failed, and so on.
According to critics, Blue Sky’s The Peanuts Movie pretty much does the same. “Director Steve Martino’s biggest challenge was simply not to screw it up,” admitted Peter Debruge in Variety, during a reliably positive review.
Not screwing up has always been the ultimate goal of Schulz’s antihero, long before Patty snarked, “Yeah, do something right for a change, Charlie Brown!” in director Bill Melendez’s foundational 1965 holiday short, A Charlie Brown Christmas. That timeless half-hour TV special paved the way for many more shorts and features to come, while influentially sequencing the genes for Martino’s pressurized turn at the beloved Peanuts franchise.
But these days, not screwing up also means paving the way for as many subsequent sequels and ancillary products as possible. And on that score, The Peanuts Movie, written by Schulz’s son Craig, grandson Bryan, and Cornelius Uliano, is a triumph. “While the old-fashioned story barely feels adequate to fill a half-hour TV special, the new look positions all involved to make as much in tie-ins and merch as they do in ticket sales,” Debruge added.
Whether or not The Peanuts Movie managed to not screw up transposing Schulz’s spare but evocative lines into a full-blown 3D CGI blockbuster for a younger demographic, who most likely did not grow up on Peanuts, is something of an open question. The famously composed Peanuts creator, faithfully but uncompromisingly analyzed in the excellent 2007 documentary, Good Ol’ Charles Schulz, likely would have appreciated The Peanuts Movie’s restraint.
“Schulz’s iconic, follicly-challenged underdog has made a notably smooth transition to computer-animated 3D,” Michael Rechtshaffen said in The Hollywood Reporter. “Care has been notably taken with those 3D character renderings which manage to bring warmth into an often soul-less technology by retaining Schulz’s deceptively simple, remarkably expressive squiggles depicting eyebrows and smiles rather than attempting to go for deeper visual dimension.”
“The animation is notable for the way that the production team has tried to downgrade slightly from the shiny perfection of typical Blue Sky creations to at least nod toward the hand-drawn qualities of Schulz’s drawings and the lo-fi feel of the string of animated cartoons that have become holiday television staples,” Mark Olsen added in the Los Angeles Times. “When Charlie Brown grows embarrassed over something, his face reddens in broad strokes as if someone were coloring him in, and his mouth sometimes quivers as if drawn by an unsteady hand. In 3-D in particular, there is something playfully surprising about seeing the squiggly forelock of hair that has always sat lonely in the middle of Charlie Brown’s forehead be raised slightly.”
Other critics, however, were not so positive that Blue Sky’s CGI did the trick of not screwing up Schulz’s hand-drawn legend.
“The film disappointingly ditches the cartoonist’s modest visual formula for a photorealistic 3-D playground,” Joe McGovern argued in Entertainment Weekly. “Even if you assume that Schulz always wanted his frozen pond reflecting lustrous light and Snoopy frolicking in a lavish Hayao Miyazaki world, the animation steroids injected into the aesthetic here nonetheless shrivel the great melancholy that’s so key to the comic’s endurance.”
And while there are differing opinions on whether The Peanuts Movie’s postmodern visuals enhanced or debased Schulz’s original Peanuts, there seems to be more unanimity on the issue of whether or not the comic strip’s overall spirit was ultimately respected. Indeed, properly executed nostalgia and reverence are central to Blue Sky and Martino’s CGI excursion, which is a brilliant example of not screwing up a venerable pop culture staple. (See M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender for an object lesson on how to totally screw this process up.)
But fear of screwing up also seems to keep The Peanuts Movie from breaking free of nostalgia and reverence, in order to chart new territory for new audiences.
The Peanuts Movie is “disappointing and actually kind of cynical in its unwillingness to try anything even vaguely innovative with these beloved characters,” Christy Lemire concluded at RogerEbert.com. “It’s all completely charming until you realize very quickly that there isn’t much going on here besides a wallow in nostalgia with little narrative drive.”
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