Sunday, November 8, 2015

Snoopy Watch: The Peanuts Movie (2015)

I don't consider myself a hardcore Peanuts fan, but then you have that moment when you realize that somewhere along the line you did, in fact, pick up some Peanuts-related trivia along the way.  I guess reading the newspaper strips your entire youth and watching the same Christmas and Thanksgiving special every year for your entire life will make that happen.

So, this Sunday we were the creepy people who came to the mid-day show of The Peanuts Movie (2015) with no kids in tow.

The movie is so fundamentally a Peanuts project that you half-expect ads for Dolly Madison pastries to pop up, and I did waste a stray thought or two wondering what year this was set in as not a single game console or mobile device made an appearance, and there were gags that included telephone cords and kids going outside without a parent or being fitted with a helmet.

While the movie does reference the Peanuts holiday specials you know and love, it doesn't hang on referencing them for the movie to work.  It's not necessarily an all-new story - it's the story of Charlie Brown becoming infatuated with The Little Red Haired Girl - but it feels like a solid entry in the decades of Peanuts cartoons.

I have to tip my hat to the team and the studio.  The movie doesn't go in for cheap modernization gags, doesn't force our characters into "the real world", and doesn't hip the characters up.  It's just straight Peanuts, and the intention of the film seems to be to get today's kids up to speed on the classic tropes of the comics and cartoons, from the kite-eating-tree to Snoopy's writing career, to Charlie Brown's failure as a pitcher to all things Lucy Van Pelt.

Something that always surprises me is that parents just assume their kids will know a pop culture item that was once part of the zeitgeist in their own youth, but in the era of on-demand everything, no newspapers in homes, the flavor-of-the-week hip kid toy media blitz with cartoons and movies, there's no reason to assume children would know who Snoopy is.  Heck, I saw first hand at the Symphony a few weeks ago that the kids have no idea who Bugs Bunny is.  Why would they?  Where would they see Bugs Bunny?  Where would they see Snoopy?

I've also come to really realize that maybe I worry about stuff like the details which compromise a Snoopy cartoon in a way many folks do not.  So, most parents might be taking their kid out to see a movie and they know Peanuts will be safe, because, hell, they remember that it was never exactly edgy material (except for the fact that Peanuts cartoons and strips actually DID deal with some pretty intense stuff, like public opinion vs. faith - see: The Great Pumpkin).

Anyway, there was no small amount of nods to lots of Peanuts history, but those nods were not really acknowledged by either kids or parents in the audience.*

The animation style is really pretty terrific.  I wasn't sure how it would work, but the movie somehow figured out how to turn the extremely symbolic, 2D drawings of Charles Schulz into workable 3D by maintaining the same sort of angles you're used to from the cartoons and strips, but then giving some depth to the characters.  It's extremely hard to describe, but it's a roaring success.  Really, the only totally 3D scenes were in the Snoopy WWI Fighting Ace fantasy sequences, which are just a huge amount of fun.  Especially as the movie cuts back and forth between Snoopy's vivid imagination and what he's doing in the real world.

One of the things that marked the awkward 1980's and later attempts at Peanuts cartoons, including a briefly lived Saturday Morning cartoon, was the shift from natural sounding kids, or at least untrained kids reading the lines, to obviously "polished" kids reading in stagier voices.  Clearly the creative team saw this for what it was, and however they pulled it off, the kid voice actors are back to sounding how you remember them from those earliest Peanuts specials.

It's a deeply sweet movie, it doesn't turn Charlie Brown into anything he isn't, and in that, keeps the character relatable in the same way Charlie Brown has always been all of us, feeling like a failure and a fraud, sometimes feeling like his beagle is the only one who likes him for who he is.

In comparison to the last kids' movie I watched, Inside Out, this one feels so much less focus grouped, instead retaining the voice of Peanuts cartoonist Charles "Sparky" Schulz, who began the comic in the 1950's and who managed to get his vision to cartoons and television almost entirely intact for fifty years.  At the end of the day, Inside Out never feels like any single vision, never has a particular voice.  It can be entertaining, and even have it's textbook lesson for the kids, but it barely even feels like Pixar remembers what their voice used to sound like.  Good work on the part of the Peanuts Movie gang for sticking close to the work of both Schulz and the animation team of Melendez and Mendelhson.

I suspect some folks will be surprised that Peanuts remains Peanuts in 2015, that nothing was done to add new characters, check off boxes in either a marketing department, the morals squad or the socially conscious team.  I am sure all will complain.  The movie did well.  Kids will see it.  Everyone will wish it were projecting their agenda.  Instead, it tells a pretty simple story about just being a good guy.  Or, you know, being a good man, Charlie Brown.

*Hats off for the deep-cut reference to Sparkplug.  Those guys did their homework.

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