Peanuts would never have been any good without the grief. When Charles Schulz’s daily comic strip debuted in 1950, it offered cute jokes about neighborhood kids and their dog, but as Schulz began to find his characters in the late ’50s and early ’60s—the depressed Charlie Brown, the hardened Lucy, the insecure Linus, the monomaniacal Snoopy—Peanuts developed an emotional depth that made it hilariously funny and revolutionized the art form. Last week The Peanuts Movie brought Schulz’s cast of characters back to the big screen for the first time in 35 years, adding the modern technology of 3-D animation to give the characters physical depth. But emotional depth is another matter—this is a G-rated movie, and in America we try to protect children from not only sex and violence but also unhappiness.
Granted, The Peanuts Movie could have been much, much worse. The team behind it—producer Paul Feig, who created the cult NBC comedy Freaks and Geeks, and coscreenwriters Craig and Bryan Schulz, the cartoonist’s son and grandson—have made a sincere effort to honor the strip. Unlike the 2-D Peanuts features released from 1969 to 1980 (A Boy Named Charlie Brown; Snoopy Come Home; Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown; Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown), the new movie offers no big adventure catapulting the gang to some exotic location. The story is a simple matter of Charlie Brown trying to impress the little red-haired girl he adores, punctuated by Snoopy’s ongoing fantasy of battling the Red Baron in the skies and affectionate replays of some of Schulz’s most durable gags (Lucy’s psychiatric booth, Schroeder’s obsession with Beethoven, Charlie Brown’s doomed attempts at football, baseball, and kite flying).
I must confess, I held out little hope for the movie after hearing Craig Schulz, interviewed on NBC’s Today Show, marvel at people’s continued devotion to “the brand.” Charles Schulz spent much of his professional life trying to square the circle between Peanuts the strip—which he personally wrote, drew, inked, and lettered for 50 years—and Peanuts the brand, which made him fabulously wealthy but steadily cheapened his creation. The friction dated back to 1959, when he licensed the characters to Ford Motor Company for a series of magazine ads and TV commercials, and it built steadily after Schulz, having turned down offers for years, finally agreed to bring the Peanuts gang to television for their own yuletide special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Once the TV specials began, Peanuts really became part of the cultural firmament, and toy merchandising of the characters exploded. The strip had always been intended for adults, but the brand was aimed at kids.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, an instant classic, set a lot of the aesthetic parameters that would govern The Peanuts Movie. In bringing the characters to the screen, director Bill Melendez stuck closely to Schulz’s vision, relying heavily on the profile and three-quarter poses familiar from the strip. Schulz threatened to walk if there were a laugh track on the special, and without it the animation had a deadpan comic force. He lobbied for the voice actors to be not professionals but kids recruited at auditions, and their unschooled delivery added to the characters’ charm. Any adults were kept offscreen and represented on the soundtrack by the meaningless wah-wah of a muted trombone. Instead of scoring the special with goofy cartoon music, the producers recruited jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, whose up-tempo signature tune “Linus and Lucy” and wistful ballad “Christmas Time Is Here” would become standards.
All of these traditions are honored in The Peanuts Movie, whose 3-D animation raises some interesting formal questions. The strip often transpired in a ruthlessly two-dimensional world—think of the line drives that would flatten Charlie Brown on the pitcher’s mound, or his futile runs at Lucy’s football, or even the characters conversing with their elbows propped on a long brick wall. Snoopy’s doghouse entered the strip at a three-quarter angle, but eventually Schulz took to rendering it as purely two-dimensional, with Snoopy impossibly stretched out along the edge of the roof. Steve Martino, director of The Peanuts Movie, gets some great 3-D effects when Snoopy is zooming around after the Red Baron (first on his house and then in a Sopwith Camel), but for the most part he respects the two-dimensional origins of the material. The characters are filled out somewhat—rather like those little plaster statues you can buy—but there’s minimal “inbetweening” (the intermediate drawings between poses), so the characters tend to rest at the same old angles.
In the figurative sense, though, the characters’ sharp edges have been filed down. Relatively little screen time goes to Lucy, a girl of such acrid bitterness and fearsome rage that you pity the man she will marry. (Schulz based her on his first wife, Joyce Halverson, who had a talent for slicing and dicing him.) There’s even less of Linus, whose high-minded philosophical and religious statements are undercut by the naked need of his blanket addiction. Charlie Brown is the same well-intentioned loser, but there’s nowhere near the level of agony he suffers in the strip (so severe that a frequent punch line is “My stomach hurts”). Even the first Peanuts movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), was more traumatic, with its scene of Charlie Brown being humiliated in a nationally televised spelling bee and its nocturnal sequence of Linus looking like a junkie from Panic in Needle Park as he trudges around Manhattan in search of his lost blanket.
This kind of pain made Peanuts startling to newspaper readers in the 1950s, but no one wanted to produce TV specials called You’re Unlovable, Charlie Brown! or Your Friends Are Cruel and Selfish, Charlie Brown! or Even Your Dog Is Just Using You, Charlie Brown! Pain is not something you want associated with your brand. (A spoiler follows.) Charlie Brown spends most of The Peanuts Movie longing for the little red-haired girl (who is pictured onscreen, in contrast to the unseen, unheard girl in the strip). “If I was something and she was nothing, I could talk to her,” he tells Lucy, his five-cent shrink. “Or if she was nothing and I was nothing, I could talk to her. But she’s something and I’m nothing. So I just can’t talk to her.” In the end, though, the little red-haired girl sees the worth in him that everyone else has overlooked, and romance blooms. A Charlie Brown who scores with the ladies? Rats! v