The peanut gallery
I first heard about The Peanuts Movie on October 9, 2012, when The A.V. Club reported that it was under development at Fox. At the time, my wife and I were expecting our first child, and it wouldn’t have been long afterward that I looked at the projected release date, did the math, and wondered if this might be the first movie I’d take my daughter to see in the theater. Three years later, that’s exactly how it worked out. I took Beatrix to a noon matinee last Thursday, and although I chose two seats in the back in case I had to beat a hasty retreat, she did great. At times, she got a little squirmy, and I ended up delivering a whispered plot commentary into her ear for much of the movie. She spent most of the last half on my lap. But aside from one moment when she wanted to get up from her seat to dance with the characters onscreen, she was perfect—laughing at all the right moments, even clapping at the end. (In retrospect, the choice of material couldn’t have been better: she complained that the Ice Age short that played before the feature was “too loud,” and I have a feeling that she would have reacted much the same way to anything but the sedate style that The Peanuts Movie captures so beautifully.) Best of all, when it was over and I asked what her favorite part was, she said: “When Charlie Brown was sad.” To which I could only think to myself: “That’s my girl!”
When The Peanuts Movie was first announced, many observers—including me—expressed reservations over whether it would be able to capture the feel of the strip and the original animated specials, and worried in particular that it would degenerate into a series of pop culture references. These concerns, while justified, conveniently ignored the fact that Charles Schulz himself was hardly averse to a trendy gag or two: Lucy once gave Schroeder a pair of Elton John glasses, and the Peanuts special that I watched the most growing up was It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. More to the point, the strip itself seems so timeless precisely because it reflected its own time so acutely. Its shift in tone from the fifties to the sixties feels like an expression of deeper cultural anxieties, and it was touched by current events to an extent that can be hard to appreciate now. (Snoopy’s dogfights with the Red Baron, which took place exclusively from 1965 to 1972, coincide to an eerie extent with American involvement in Vietnam.) The Peanuts Movie makes the smart, conservative choice by avoiding contemporary references as much as possible: like the first season of Fargo, its primary order of business is to establish its bona fides to anxious fans. But I’d like to think that the inevitable sequels will be a bit more adventurous, just as the later features that Schulz himself wrote began to venture into weirder, more idiosyncratic territory.
That’s hard, of course, when a movie is being conceived in the absence of its creator’s uniquely personal vision. The Peanuts Movie sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan: “Let’s make a list of things we like.” (It doesn’t go quite as far as the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which adapts the original strips almost word by word, but it quotes from its sources to just the right extent.) The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials, particularly A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it lacks the prickly specificity that characterized Schulz at his best. Yet I don’t want to undervalue its real achievements. Visually and tonally, it pulls off the immensely difficult technical trick of translating the strip’s spirit into a modern idiom, and the constraints that this imposed result in one of the prettiest, most graphically inventive animated movies I’ve seen in a long time. It never feels rushed or frantic, and its use of child actors, with their slight flatness of affect, is still appealing. Best of all, it respects the strip’s air of sadness—although there’s nothing like “It Changes” from Snoopy Come Home, which might be the bleakest sequence in any children’s movie. And while its happy ending might seem out of tune with Schulz’s underlying pessimism, it’s not so different from the conclusion that he might have given us if ill health and other distractions hadn’t intervened. This is a man, after all, who shied away from easy satisfactions in the strip, but who also wrote the script for It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown.
And I’d like to think that it will play the same incalculable role in my daughter’s inner life that it did in mine. I’ve written at length about the strip before, but it wasn’t until I saw Snoopy at his typewriter on the big screen that I realized—or remembered—how struck I was by that image as a child, and how the impulse it awakened is responsible for where I am today. (One of my first attempts at writing consisted of a careful transcript of one of Snoopy’s stories, which I can still write from memory: “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!” At which point Snoopy smugly notes: “This twist in plot will baffle my readers.”) I would have loved this movie as a kid, and scenes like the one in which Snoopy, in his imagination, sneaks back across the front lines after his plane is downed are as much fun to dream about as always. Afterward, my daughter seemed most interested in imagining herself as the little red-haired girl, but if she’s anything like her father, she’ll come to recognize herself more in Charlie Brown and Snoopy, which represent the two halves of their creator’s personality: the neurotic and the fantasist, the solitary introvert and the imaginative writer for whom everything is possible. The Peanuts Movie may not ignite those feelings on its own, but as a gateway toward the rest of the Schulz canon, it’s close to perfection. As I once wrote about The Complete Peanuts collections, which I said would be among the first books my children would ever read: “I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.”