When animated cinema continuously relies on fluid, photo-realistic CGI and high-concept, fantastical settings, it’s very easy to overlook the simple power of the squiggle, the purposefully rough and uneven line. It’s the kind of line that serves as a kind of direct connection to the artist. It’s the kind of line that comes out of quick, heady inspiration as much as it does deliberate, thoughtful purpose.
That’s also the power of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic Peanuts comic strip, and that’s also why the strip and its colorful cast of characters has endured as it has for so long. Peanuts is beholden to the squiggle. It’s a deceptively simple strip that often contains deep wisdom and complex, consistent characterizations that aren’t tied to trends or fads. It’s timelessly nostalgic, and that’s something that The Peanuts Movie takes well into account.
There’s very little plot to the film. Charlie Brown’s new neighbor, the otherwise un-named Little Red-Haired Girl, has just moved in across the street. Although he’s smitten with her, Charlie Brown lacks the drive to actually talk to her, certain that his attempts will just end in failure like all the rest of his endeavors. His biggest supporter is his faithful dog Snoopy, who has his own related side-story in the form of a series of fantasy adventures as a World War I flying ace trying to save his beloved from the clutches of the infamous Red Baron.
If there’s anything working against the film, it’s its lack of structure and movement. Things just seem to happen with little connection to everything else, and the entirety of the film feels less like a story and more like a “Peanuts greatest hits.” Nary a scene goes by without some call-back to Peanuts mythology, such as Lucy’s psychiatry booth or Snoopy’s attempts at writing a novel (which always begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.”). The film even opens with the Peanuts gang ice-skating to jazzy Vince Guaraldi tunes like in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
However, at the same time, that lack of form is also part of the film’s inherent and accessible charm. We’re being privy to the daily lives of the characters, seeing them interact organically with each other and their surroundings (aside from Snoopy’s fantasies, that is). There is little guile and no artifice here. The film is always refreshingly itself, and it always stays close to the strip’s rough-hewn but loving nature. The screenplay itself was even co-written by Schulz’s son and grandson.
The Peanuts Movie doesn’t rely on nostalgia as much as it owns the sentiment attached to it. Anyone who grew up with the Peanuts will find much to love here, as will anyone who’s new to the franchise.. The characters are still voiced by children, albeit this time by professional actors. Snoopy still speaks in chirps and yips thanks to archival recordings of Bill Melendez. The animation by Blue Sky Studios smooths out the characters a little, but it still has the same old-fashioned feel of the animated specials. The characters haven’t been reimagined or updated, but they never needed to be. In fact, the only big indication that the film is a product of 2015 is a cute but innocuous Meghan Trainor song inserted into the Winter Dance scenes.
What truly makes this film loyal to the Peanuts comic, however, is its heart. This a story celebrating how even the most unlikely of people rise to the challenges life has to offer. There is no hero’s journey or epic quest about it, though. It’s demonstrated through simple acts of kindness and sincerity that end up rippling through the lives of those around us. It’s about community and connectivity in the most natural, unadorned sense of the words. No cynicism here, no sarcasm, and no winking at the audience.
And that’s all for the better. It’s been 35 years since the Peanuts gang has been featured on the big screen, but they haven’t lost a single bit of their charm in the decades in-between. You’ve made a great film, Charlie Brown.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+