There are really only two audiences that The Peanuts Movie will fully appeal to. One is very young children, who in all likelihood are unaware of the original Charles Schulz comic strip but will respond well to the bright colors, the uncomplicated plot, the misfortunes of the Charlie Brown character, and the overall message that you only have to be honest, fair, and trustworthy if you want to be liked.
The other is the much older group of diehards that are intimately familiar with the strip, the TV specials, and the original five animated films; they will see the film for purely nostalgic reasons, and they should get a kick out of the many references to the source material, like Frieda being overly proud of her naturally curly hair, or Linus’ mentioning of the Great Pumpkin, or Lucy running a roadside psychiatrist stand and enjoying the clanking of nickels in her payment can.
But what about middle-of-the-road audiences? What will they make of this movie? It’s hard to say. Maybe it depends on how they view Charlie Brown. Some will argue that he’s the eternal optimist; no matter how many times he fails to get a kite into the air, or catch a baseball, or actually kick the football before Lucy has the chance to pull it away, he will always get up and try again. More cynical people – and in this case, I count myself as among them – will argue that he’s a loser who’s in denial and perhaps even insane, since he repeatedly does the same thing yet expects different results every time. I’m not advocating giving up, not entirely. Having said that, there’s nothing to be gained by fighting a losing battle. And yes, it is a losing battle. Charlie Brown will never get the kite in the air. He will never catch the baseball. And he sure as hell will never kick the football. Why hasn’t he come to this realization yet?
I think part of the problem is that, while I do have a certain nostalgic fondness for the Peanuts strip and the characters (aided in no small part by annual viewings of A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown), I never thought they were especially interesting or compelling. I always thought Schulz was simultaneously trying too hard and not hard enough; the characters make overly precocious observations about topics as broad as religion and politics one minute, then engage in adolescent hi-jinks the next. But to narrow the scope of my review specifically to this film, the plot suffers from a lack of focus, alternating randomly between the efforts of Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) to win the affections of the recently-arrived Little Red-Haired Girl (voiced by Francesca Capaldi) and Snoopy (voiced from archival recordings by the late Bill Melendez) losing himself in a writing fantasy of the Ace Fighter Pilot battling the nefarious Red Baron.
The film isn’t much helped by dialogue that, much like it was in the strip and the TV specials, is incredibly lame. Listening to the characters talk – Lucy with her implausible desire for real estate, Marci with her unlikely understanding of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – you just want to sink in your seat out of sheer embarrassment. I’m not saying that I wanted the film to sound as if it had been written by Aaron Sorkin. But I certainly would have preferred if someone had tried just a little harder. What level-headed audience is likely to appreciate Charlie Brown panicking over the prospect that doing a book report with the Little Red-Haired Girl will lead to commitments he just isn’t for, such as having to support her, getting a mortgage, and being put into escrow? Or Charlie Brown having to explain to his kid sister Sally (voiced by Mariel Sheets) that summer vacation doesn’t mark the end of her education, that she has eight more years of grammar school, four more years of high school, and four more years of college?
In spite of my reservations, the film isn’t without its good points. I’m happy to report that the film is quite good-looking. Despite being both computer generated and in 3D, director Steve Martino and his team of art directors and animation supervisors still managed to remain faithful to Schulz’s simplistic drawing style, giving the characters and the backgrounds a bright and utterly charming storybook quality – although I’m compelled to point out, as I’m always compelled to point out, that it would look much brighter if you opt to see the film in old-fashioned 2D. And even amongst the less compelling verbal and visual jokes, there are select moments that are quite funny. My favorite is when Charlie Brown sincerely wishes upon a star as he’s getting ready for bed, only for that star to dramatically fall out of the sky and disappear behind the horizon. Just one more misfortune to drive home the reality that he’s the ultimate loser.
At least, that’s the reality as I understand it. I’m well aware that many don’t understand it that way at all; for them, Charlie Brown is the lovable embodiment of the age-old expression, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” They are they ones that will respond best to The Peanuts Movie. I wish I could look at it from that far more positive perspective. But alas, I’m just not wired that way. When I look at Charlie Brown, I see a pathetic boy so psychologically tethered to behaviors and beliefs that get him nowhere that it indicates not optimism, but delusion. For several years now, I’ve half-jokingly speculated that, were he allowed to grow up, he would be a suicide risk by age fifteen, if not sooner. There’s only so much a person in his position can take. For those of you currently thinking that I’m either too dark and depressing or reading into this character too deeply, keep in mind that I never forced you to read this far.