Saturday, November 7, 2015

It's a Great Surprise, Charlie Brown: THE PEANUTS MOVIE

I had a worst-case scenario in my mind as I sat in the theater waiting for a computer animated Peanuts from the people who made the increasingly inane Ice Age movies. The last thing we need is a loud, grating, awkwardly modernized version of the late Charles M. Schulz’s modest and profound long-running comic strip. Instead, I was greeted with a most pleasant surprise. The Peanuts Movie has reverence for what made the original vision so potent and lasting. It’s quiet and thoughtful, with real little kid voices speaking haltingly precocious dialogue. Close your eyes and you can hear rhythms much like those that brought the comic to life in the beloved TV specials and features of the 60s, like the unimpeachable Charlie Brown Christmas. In reviving this memorable group of characters, the pack of precocious kids and one imaginative dog surely the best figures to ever step out of the funny pages, the filmmakers have provided the same gentle cartoon mischief, silly flights of whimsy, jazzy Vince Guaraldi-inspired score, and sharply sweet evocation of childhood in all its excitements and disappointments.

The CG approach does take some getting used to, but director Steve Martino wisely keeps the 3D designs essentially identical to the originals, and shot only flat from head-on or in profile, matching the 2D renderings of yore. When good old Charlie Brown’s bald head and tuft of hair first appears on the screen, you can see some extra texture and shading in his details. And yet he’s also at once and completely the Charlie Brown you remember. The same goes for the rest of the recognizable kids – opinionated Suzy, blanket-toting wise-beyond-his-years Linus, forceful Sally, slacker Peppermint Patty, bookish Marcie, and more – who move, speak, and behave in all the ways you’d expect. They say familiar lines, not because they’re predictable catchphrases, but because they’re essential parts of who they are. Sounds (tinkling piano), motions (dance moves), references (The Great Pumpkin) and conflicts (unrequited crushes, footballs snatched away before they can be kicked) are instantly recognizable. What’s old is new again.

The center of attention is Charlie Brown, who can never catch a break. He’s hyper-aware of how others perceive him, carries with him the sadness and insecurities of failure, and the kind heart and humble persistence to keep trying to do the right thing anyway. The counterpoint is his rambunctious beagle, Snoopy (his yelps and howls voiced once again by Bill Melendez), whose rich interior life leads him on flights of fancy oblivious to the reality about him. The movie is gently structured around Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl and his attempt to find something at which he can be a winner. Big events include a Snow Day, a book report, and a school dance. A few moments find modern pop music encroaching, but it’s otherwise timeless. There’s admiration for Beethoven and Tolstoy, spoken of in worshipful tones. There’s appealing patience, and refreshing throwback appeal. The movie is low-key, loose, and episodic, comfortable in every way.

This is all utterly charming, so purely moral and kind, without getting pushy about it. Other kids’ movies feel the need to get loud, to load up on innuendo for the parents and manic movements for the youngest. Luckily, there was no push to make Peanuts something it’s not. Credit source material too beautifully unique, and held in such high regard, to mess with, and a screenplay co-written by Bryan and Craig Schulz, Charles’ son and grandson, who have an interest in keeping the family legacy intact. The result is a movie that tips its hat to the old – in flashbacks and other stylized flashes rendered in lovely hand-drawn 2D fashion – and moves forward creating a warm, colorful, and precious evocation of a cartoon world that evokes childhood memories. It’s both of childhood and about childhood, which lends it such soft power amidst wonderfully funny patter and rubbery cartoon silliness.

It’s a deep and true comfort to be back in the primary-color world of the Peanuts characters, a midcentury Anytown, U.S.A. with ice skating in the park, square red dog houses, trees entangled with lost kites, and kids left free to wander and play at their leisure when school’s dismissed for the day. The adults, of course, are unseen on the margins of such a childhood, heard only through the wah-wahs of Trombone Shorty. I could’ve lived in this movie for much longer than its 90 minutes. Sure, the animators take advantage of some modern tricks to visualize Snoopy’s imagination with zippy action that errs on the side of too much swooping and flowing. But he still types on a typewriter, dreams of World War I, and teases the little yellow bird, Woodstock. And the kids still play and dream, fight and make up, have mock versions of adult foibles (complete with Psychiatric Help for a nickel) that are no less real for being felt by small beings, the weight of possibility and expectation hanging over carefree unstructured juvenile time.

What’s so continually wonderful about the movie is finding these pleasures surviving modern gloss, a big production in touch with its heartening smallness. No less than Umberto Eco, writing about the comic strip, praised its “continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.” Peanuts, he wrote, “charms both sophisticated adults and children with equal intensity, as if each reader found there something for himself, and it is always the same thing, to be enjoyed in two different keys.” And to think a 3D CGI Hollywood remake could capture these qualities with such graceful melancholy. When poor, awkward, intensely sympathetic Charlie Brown is at last allowed a small victory, the bloom of self-confidence is more triumphant than any number of save-the-world epics. Here is a family film so sophisticated in its simplicity, so direct and immediate in its laughs and its sentiment, it could charm any age without leaving any open mind insulted.

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