The Peanuts Movie: post-Oscars treat

If the weeks following the Oscars make you glum at the movies, check out a recent visit from Charlie Brown that you may have missed in theaters. While The Peanuts Movie doesn’t share anything new about our favorite animated children, it reminds us why we have followed this group for so many years. This family movie is now available on DVD, online and on demand.

With a narrative that pays homage to the off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, and a visual style that feels more at home in today’s computer world than the pen-and-ink days of cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, The Peanuts Movie picks up as if we had just watched a Peanuts holidays special.

Not much has changed in this magical world where adults may be (slightly) heard but not seen. Charlie Brown, wearing the same look each day, still finds himself the target of misunderstanding and criticism while his faithful dog, Snoopy, continues to imagine himself a World War I flying ace. The opinionated Lucy criticizes our hero while offering counseling for a nickel at her sidewalk stand as Linus holds on to his blanket, Schroeder plays Beethoven on the piano, and Peppermint Patty defies logic with her academic achievements. And, no surprise, Charlie Brown longs for the attention of the little redheaded girl who moves into the neighborhood. Everything recreates a simpler time, even that telephone attached to a wall. With a cord.

Writers Craig and Bryan Schulz (Charles’ son and grandson) deliver what we expect from a Peanuts entertainment. Now and then they directly lift a punch line from the musical or reuse a strain of Vince Guaraldi’s original background music. While making the most of the computerized animation – especially in Snoopy’s flying sequences – they salute the original pen-and-ink approaches. And while they introduce new, diverse characters, they rely on what we remember from years of reading the comic strips and watching the television shows. They introduce the familiar characters to a new generation as they carefully reassure older viewers how they respect the material. For most of the film, this approach works, as Schulz and Schulz carefully broaden the material without sacrificing the comfort. But they could be more daring in their reinterpretation. As comfortable as their tribute may be, they risk diluting the movie’s effectiveness as stand-alone entertainment. While the movie helps us remember what we like about Charlie Brown, we soon realize that we have seen and heard a lot of this before.

Regardless of the familiarity, the movie works because it’s so comfortable. The vocal performances – especially from Noah Schnapp as Charlie Brown and Bill Melendez as Snoopy – ring true to our memories of earlier sounds while the visual approaches by Steve Martino cleverly expand the scope of the landscape. While Christophe Beck’s music may not match the unique sound of Guaraldi’s original score, it does enhance the film’s rhythm. And writers Schulz and Schulz carefully follow the sense of humor of the original strips.

If you sense slight disappointment, it’s only because I love these characters. As reassuring as this return visit to their world, I would have loved to see the filmmakers stretch the boundaries. Yes, The Peanuts Movie is delightful entertainment for the whole family. I just hoped to be surprised by a film that feels like something we have seen before. Because we have.

The Peanuts Movie

Content: Medium. This return visit to some of our favorite animated characters rings more familiar than ambitious.

Entertainment: High. Thanks to writers Craig and Bryan Schulz the film celebrates the continuation of the Peanuts magic by referring to past moments.

Message: Medium. Because the writers Schulz reach for so many moments we remember they have less time to create new movie memories.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to share a movie as a family – without worries over content – is always relevant.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. From the characters to the visual delights the movie offers much to talk about, especially our memories of Peanuts entertainments from the past.

(The Peanuts Movie is rated G for general audiences. The film runs 1 hour, 28 minutes.)

4 Popcorn Buckets

 

When Movies Look to Comic Strips

 

As The Peanuts Movie helps us through the post-Oscar slump, the film continues a tinsel town tradition of bringing comic strips to the screen. Here are some popular entries from the Hollywood archives.

 

Dick Tracy (1990)

It took the creative mind of moviemaker Warren Beatty to figure out how to turn Chester Gould’s 1930 comic strip into a cohesive narrative. But never underestimate Beatty. He gave the film a rich visual look – with its consistent use of primary colors in the sets, lighting and costumes – and asked Broadway songwriter Stephen Sondheim to compose a score that almost makes the film into a musical. Best of all he cast a collection of character actors to play the exaggerated supporting roles, topped by Al Pacino’s Oscar-nominated turn as “Big Boy” Caprice. Only superstar Madonna seems out of place. She can’t quite figure out how to play real in such make believe surroundings.

 

The Addams Family (1991 and 1993)

While we remember the television series of the 1960s, the original family of outrageous characters was created in 1938 by Charles Addams for The New Yorker. The television series, which ran from 1964 to 1966, introduced the tone and musical theme that were later recreated for the big screen. With Raul Julia as Gomez, and Anjelica Huston as Morticia, the first film captured the magic of the comics without sacrificing the layers of the characters. When it scored at the box office, the inevitable sequel was planned. Sadly, Addams Family Values failed to sustain the fun of the first film and found itself overwhelmed by a darker side. A good script would have helped, too.

 

Dennis the Menace (1993)

The adventures of a young boy – too curious for his own good – first appeared in newspapers in 1951. Originally created by Hank Ketcham, Dennis the Menace eventually appeared in some 1,000 newspapers in 48 countries. In addition to its popularity in comic books, the stories were adapted into a popular television series that ran from 1959 to 1963. Surprisingly, it took until 1993 for Dennis to jump to the big screen in a movie adaptation that tried to capture the magic of the original. Walter Matthau was at home as the curmudgeon Mr. Wilson who tries to keep Dennis in check. This led to a follow up film for television and a second sequel that went straight to DVD. But none are as fun as the original comics.

 

Li’l Abner (1959)

Many years ago, when some Americans feared the intentions of political institutions, humorist Al Capp created a comic strip about backcountry hillbillies who are willing to stand against the transgressions of the federal government. Capp touched a nerve of American skepticism with his outrageous satire in a comic strip that ran for some 43 years and, at its peak, was read by more than 60 million people in more than 900 newspapers in the U.S. In the 1950s, the stories were turned into a hit musical on Broadway that was made into this movie in 1959. While the big screen diluted the humor, the show still works as an example of how anger can fuel creative inspiration.

 

Annie (1982, 1999, 2014)

During the early 20th century, the antics of a young orphan articulated the concerns of a nation in a comic strip titled Little Orphan Annie. When it first appeared in 1924, readers went wild for the stories of this optimistic girl, her dog and her wealthy benefactor. The resilient Annie seemed confident to confront any issue of the day from the financial woes of the Great Depression to the threats of Communism to concerns over organized labor. In 1977, producer Mike Nichols turned the stories into the Broadway smash musical Annie that became a film in 1982. While that movie failed to capture the magic of the comic strip, a later made-for-television version hit all the right notes in 1999. Unfortunately, a recent film adaptation – from 2014 – blurs the memory of this wonderful character from the comics.

 

Peanuts

Yes, Charlie Brown had a movie career before The Peanuts Movie! This marvelous comic strip – that started in 1950 – ultimately ran in more than 2,600 newspapers. After becoming off-Broadway stars in the hit musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown – and television stars in a landmark series of specials – the Peanuts gang first traveled to the big screen in 1969 with the animated musical A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Three years later, Snoopy, Come Home appeared, followed in 1977 by Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. The fourth film based on the comic – Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown – marked one of the few times that any Peanuts story featured adult characters. Thank goodness the Schulz family decided to return to the big screen with The Peanuts Movie!

Yes, moviemakers love the comics. And, as long as we go to these films, we will continue to see them.

See you at the movies.

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