As a man of 31, I’ve become aware that things that I grew up with, took for granted even, mean next to nothing to the kids of today. It hit me recently that most children probably have no idea who the Looney Tunes are, for example. They were 50 years old when I was growing up, but they were on TV ad nauseum. Nowadays, probably not so much. The same, it seemed, held true for Charles Schulz’ Peanuts characters. Since his passing, they have become less and less prevalent, save for the annual A Charlie Brown Christmas airing way too early in the Christmas season. But now, Fox and Blue Sky Studios’ new The Peanuts Movie brought back all the fun nostalgia of those characters and proved that updating the visuals just helps the themes and comedy to be even more timeless.
Whoever thought it was a good idea to make a 3D, digitally animated movie based on Charlie Brown and Snoopy likely was met with a lot of flack from people who either didn’t want to taint the memory of the hand-drawn characters or simply thought kids wouldn’t be interested. Oh, how wrong both of those hypothetical qualms were. This is a fun, lively film that works on the level of modern comedy and adventure sensibilities, while maintaining the voices of Schulz’s classic characters who don’t talk the way real kids talk. Rather, they discuss big, weighty topics like feelings of inadequacy, fitting in, being nervous, falling in love, and generally feeling like someone who’s not comfortable in their own skin. Charlie Brown is all of that and is all of us, and we all wish we had a friend like Snoopy to have our back.
The film plays out like a series of vignettes surrounding a couple of overarching plot threads. One deals with Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) falling in love with, being too nervous to talk to, and doing anything to impress the Little Red Haired Girl who moves in across the street. This has him doing things from learning to become a great magician for a talent show to learning to dance for a trophy to achieving academic excellence, much to the surprise of his classmates like Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Franklin, Schroeder, and his little sister Sally. While this is going on, and weaving in and out, is Snoopy’s attempt to write a thrilling novel about his alter ego, the WWI Flying Ace who goes up against the arch fiend, the Red Baron, in order to save the beautiful pilot/poodle Fifi. Snoopy’s chapters usually reflect what Charlie Brown is going through, and the little yellow bird Woodstock is always there with the red pen for notes.
One of the best things about this movie is how it doesn’t try to change what made the original Peanuts strips and TV specials what they were. It doesn’t add a bunch of modernisms, or make any of the characters talk using slang or in ways that change who they’ve always been. This has surely to do with Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan being two of the three screenwriters. They wanted to ensure the movie got everything essentially right. There are nods to everything you remember about the Peanuts, and even a few direct quotes, but it feels fresh in its timelessness, and I think kids will latch onto the themes just as much now as they did when the strip and toons were new.
The thing that IS updated greatly here is the presentation, which is really something special. The characters are all a kind of CGI that looks flat like the strip, but also 3D, but also sort of claymation. It’s super neat. The eyes of the characters still emote the same way and even feel a little hand drawn at times, to the film’s benefit. This technique also allows for some amazing action sequences in Snoopy’s fantasy world with him on his doghouse literally having a dogfight against the Red Baron. It’s accessible, but frenetic in a way the old cartoons never could be.
Adults will absolutely find The Peanuts Movie delightful and charming, but the comedy and messages will still ring true for kids. And there’s nothing wrong with being able to share an enjoyable moviegoing experience across generations, especially when it’s a movie that just makes you feel nice and warm and at home.
Images: Fox/Blue Sky Studios
Kyle Anderson is the weekend editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!