Charlie Brown is, as always, feeling sorry for himself. His baseball skills are a disaster and he’s lost yet another kite to a particularly vicious tree. When a red-headed girl moves into the neighbourhood, he decides to put his loserdom behind him and try to be impressive, for the first time in his life. In the meantime, his dog Snoopy is pursuing a career as a novelist and imagining himself as a World War I flying ace.
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Given the current vogue for reboots and revivals, it seems odd Charlie Brown hasn’t already debuted on the big screen. The newspaper strip from which he and Snoopy sprang lasted an astonishing 50 years, with the characters’ likenesses licensed out onto everything from T-shirts to toys to doghouse-shaped lunch boxes. Watching Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie, it soon becomes clear why there’s been a delay in bringing the team screaming and kicking into the 21st century – at heart, Peanuts is seriously old-fashioned.
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The producers seem well aware of this and don’t work too hard to bring the franchise up to date. (There is still only one non-white kid in the neighbourhood, for one thing.) Instead, the film is set in a strange, timeless place. The school disco plays Meghan Trainor (thankfully not her mega hit All About That Bass), but the kids frolic in a nostalgic vision of childhood where nobody has ever heard of a computer let alone an iPhone. Basically, it’s the kind of childhood modern parents might want for their kids, but I’m not sure it will be half as attractive to young viewers. To try telling a child that there was once a world without PlayStations is to watch that child gape in horrified disbelief.
Fans of the franchise will know that no matter what Charlie Brown attempts to do, nothing ever works out right. Part of his enduring appeal is that he’s the permanent underdog, a marker by which our own failings don’t look half as bad.
The film attempts to soften this somewhat, looking for the sort of redemptive Hollywood moments that the original cartoon strip (and the TV adaptations) fiercely resisted. This is understandable. Anyone who’s watched the original A Charlie Brown Christmas will know that it’s one of the most depressing half hours of seasonal TV ever made. The moral of the original stories can pretty much be summed up as: Even if you always do the right thing, there’s still no guarantee that people will like you.
Preparing your kids for failure and misery isn’t the sort of thing modern media is built for. Not when there are T-shirts, toys and lunch boxes to be sold. Some will squirm at the thick pasting of sentimentality applied here, but it’s easy to overlook this sugar-coating when so much else has been done right.
As with much else here, the animation finds an inventive compromise between old and new, fusing Schultz’s shaky ink sketches with modern 3DCG to create something that appears halfway between claymation and old-school cartoons.
The fast-paced, slapstick heavy action (another concession to modern cinema) somehow works to complement the gentle, character-driven plot, with Snoopy’s flights of fantasy providing bursts of colourful entertainment for the younger folk.
Older fans will be delighted by the film’s “greatest hits” approach, which employs Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz score and packs in countless references to favourite strips. And, as with this year’s superb Inside Out, there are some big ideas around self-esteem and depression lurking beneath the surface.
The Pixar films are, of course, the benchmark by which Peanuts will be judged. While it doesn’t disgrace itself, it also doesn’t quite manage to be as intelligent and inventive. In softening the existential bleakness of the original cartoons, the new movie trades its edge for warm, fuzzy feelings. Schultz knew kids were well aware of life’s disappointments and injustices. Let’s hope the (inevitable) sequel is bold enough to own up to that.
Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie, Opens January 1, 2016, Rated G, 93 minutes.