Wah wah wah wah, wah wah, wah wah wah wah.
Sorry... couldn't resist.
I've been a Peanuts fan as far back as I can remember. I read Peanuts books and drew Peanuts cartoons as soon as I was old enough to read a book or hold a crayon. I've still got a picture I drew as a little kid of Snoopy's dog house (a cutaway view showing the inside and all of the stuff that he had in there), and there's a photo somewhere of me standing in front of a chalkboard we had at home drawing Snoopy on it. I had stacks of Peanuts books that I read and re-read endlessly. I have every volume to date of The Complete Peanuts from Fantagraphics, and am now in need of a longer book shelf to fit the last few remaining volumes.
Charles M. Schulz was and is the single biggest artistic influence in my life, and out of Peanuts grew my love for cartooning. Oddly enough, Charles M. Jones (the Warner Bros. director) is the second biggest influence on me. Not sure what the deal is with artists named "Charles M." something-or-other, but there you go.
That said, I'm not a collector of Peanuts memorabilia. I never kept my original, old Peanuts books in pristine shape. I read them until they were dog-eared and ragged. I own almost no other Peanuts merchandise. I don't necessarily think that everything with "Peanuts" on it is a good thing. Chocolate bars, for example. Why ruin a perfectly good chocolate bar by putting peanuts in it? It's like, you're eating this really tasty, smooth chocolate bar, and then it's like biting into a chunk of particle board. I mean, by themselves I like peanuts, or as peanut butter in a Reese's peanut butter cup, but that doesn't mean I want big, nasty hunks of them in my chocolate. Same thing with Rocky Road ice cream. Why on earth would anyone...
Right. So... not everything with "Peanuts" stamped on it is good. Particularly when it comes to animation.
On one hand, A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown nailed it. They're funny, iconic, and perfectly translate the humor and characters of Peanuts over into the world of animation. But there are others. Many others. Forty-five others. And many of them were stinkers. They never quite recaptured the spirit of the original holiday specials with It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown. They really jumped the shark though with It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown, when they animated Snoopy's dancing by rotoscoping a female dancer. Even though I didn't know much about animation at the time, I knew it was creepy and weird.
The four original feature films didn't fare much better. While the first two were pretty good, generally they were just television specials that ran too long.
Still, between the original Christmas and Great Pumpkin specials, and a really good Saturday morning TV series which basically lifted episodes right out of the comic strip, it's easier to think of Peanuts animation in a positive light, and overlook the negative.
That is until a few years ago when I read the announcement... that they were going to make a new Peanuts movie, using CG.
I remember getting really upset. Every, and I mean every attempt to CG-ify a traditional cartoon or comic strip character had failed horribly. Scooby Doo, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Alvin & The Chipmunks (admittedly, no great loss there), Casper, Garfield, Dino, The Great Gazoo, The Smurfs, Underdog, Sherman and Peabody... and many of them shoehorned into impossibly awful live-action train wrecks of a movie. Seriously... have you ever watched the Flintstones movie?
Single worst movie-going experience I've ever had. I felt like I needed to shower afterwards. Or rinse out my eyes with iodine.
Anyway, they're all catastrophically bad. That's my point.
Peanuts weren't designed to be three dimensional. Look at any toy featuring them. They never really look right from any angles but those Schulz drew in the strip. He cheated their shapes and proportions when drawing them from different angles all the time - that's what cartooning is. It's abstraction.
So I was expecting the CG Peanuts movie to be pretty-much the worst thing in the history of awful things. For the next couple of years, every mention of the project made me cringe.
But then, I saw the
Because what Blue Sky did, which was the right way, and the only way to animate the characters, was the way Bill Melendez had figured out 50 years ago. Stick to Schulz's designs. If a character doesn't work from an angle or in a certain pose, then they shouldn't be shown that way. Blue Sky didn't animate them as in-the-round CG characters. They restricted them based on Schulz's designs, animating with 3D tools, but as if they were working in 2D. In other words, they became abstractions - just like Schulz had done when he'd created them.
It looked brilliant. A slightly textured, slightly dimensional yet still completely faithful version of Schulz's cartoons. I was really impressed. I had no confidence that a studio would ever take such a different approach, especially in this day of Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks all spewing out effectively the same character designs over and over and over again.
The big question then was... would the movie itself be any good? The writing has to be true to the characters, to the voices Schulz gave each of them out of his own head and his own heart. Peanuts was an incredibly personal strip to him, which is why it's in his will that it will never be continued by anyone else. Any Peanuts strip you read now are reprints. He never used ghost artists, or gag writers (which are both extremely common in comic strips). When he could no longer continue drawing the strip due to failing health, he ended it. I don't think that it's a coincidence that the very day before the last strip ran in the papers, is the day he passed away.
So then... last Friday night, we had a screening of The Peanuts Movie at work. We have a theater there with a state-of-the-art digital cinema projector, and Fox and Blue Sky were gracious enough to send a copy of the movie out for our students to watch. And while you might think animation students will automatically love any animation comes along, the truth is, they can be amongst its harshest critics. Nothing makes an animator madder than wasting their time watching a bad animated movie.
However, that wasn't the case.
The students genuinely enjoyed this movie - laughing along with it, being touched by the homages to Schulz, connecting with the characters... all of which in a way kind of surprised me. Because from my perspective - sure, I like Peanuts. I'm old. I grew up with Peanuts when it was phenomenally popular. They named a couple of Apollo spacecraft after Charlie Brown and Snoopy, for crying out loud.
But I wasn't expecting Peanuts to have crossed generations. I guess I shouldn't have underestimated their timeless appeal. The humor and characters resonate with audiences to this day. Schulz's writing ran the gamut from funny to poignant, silly to melancholy, but always with an underlying sincerity and truthfulness to it all.
So did the movie work for me?
I suppose at some point, I should start writing an actual movie review. But I wanted it to be very clear - Peanuts means a lot to me. I wouldn't have pursued a life in the arts without it. Getting the movie right, in my eyes, is no trivial matter.
And yes, they got it right.
I sat through the whole film with a huge smile on my face. The writing was spot-on (with some really funny moments), the animation was perfect (the animators obviously had a lot of fun), but most importantly - the movie stays true to the characters and Schulz's humor. It manages to update the delivery medium of the material without trying to force it into new directions that don't fit. It's not "edgy", the kids aren't spending all their time texting or making pop culture references, the characters are who they have always been. They're timeless. And even though some of the jokes are familiar to fans of the strip, that's okay - because the source material is why all of this worked in the first place. It's Peanuts, it doesn't need to be something else. In fact, it shouldn't.
I really appreciated that more is made of the friendship between Charlie Brown and Snoopy than is sometimes seen in the TV specials. They're clearly best friends, and it's really heartwarming to see that emphasized. Charlie Brown is at the center of the plot, and Snoopy is there to support him. Certainly, Snoopy gets his fair share of the spotlight in his fantasy sequences, but even those exist to drive Charlie Brown's story forward.
There are a lot of wonderful nods to Charles Schulz throughout the film. It's as if his own hand begins the movie, starting us off on the right track. And there are further homages to Schulz, Bill Melendez (who created the original animated specials) and Vince Guaraldi (who created the original iconic music) throughout - always thoughtful, often funny, and very touching. Carefully selected panels from the strip run alongside and tie into the end credits, which was a perfect way to end the movie. (Plus - there is a post-credits scene, so stick around for that too.)
All that said, The Peanuts Movie isn't perfect. There are a few jokes which are a bit too familiar. There are a few liberties taken which are less in line with the comic strip, and more in keeping with some of the animated specials. And there's some dialog at the end of the film which is a bit clunky and overstated. I kept thinking Schulz would have found a simpler, more eloquent way of getting to the point. But in the end, it was still a delightful film to watch, and obviously a labor of love for the people who worked on it, who clearly respect and want to celebrate the legacy of Charles Schulz and Peanuts. I wouldn't mind even waiting another eight years for the next one.
Load up the kids, grab some popcorn and check it out. The Peanuts Movie gets a 9/10.