Yes, it's 3-D computer animation, and yes, it shows us more of the face of Charlie Brown's Little Red-Haired Girl than you ever thought you would see. But the news, for the most part, is good: The Peanuts Movie is much closer in spirit to Charles Schulz's half-century comic strip masterpiece than, say, new episodes of The Simpsons are to the spirit of Matt Groening. The story — concocted by Craig and Bryan Schulz, sons of Charles, and Cornelius Uliano — is low-key Schulz stuff involving crushes, ice skating, book reports, a school dance and all the anxiety such everyday life stirs in our hero.
Lucy rhapsodizes about the nickels she earns for her psychiatric advice, the hero mopes that nobody likes him, and the film has more moments of stillness and sadness than you would ever expect from a studio kids picture. There's too much WWI dogfighting, but that's the same as it ever was.
What's surprising — even wondrous — is how often Schulz's precisely crooked line work informs the big-budget gloss. It's there in the tufts of dust kicked up by Pig-Pen and in the lumpish globs of snowflakes. But most importantly it's in the faces, in the mouths and eyes and Schulzian worry lines, all sketched in with the raw expressiveness of pen on paper. Congratulations to director Steve Martino and his team: When's the last time a computer-animated feature showcased the power of cartooning?
Remember, the spirit of Schulz's creation has always been negotiable, from long before 1984's It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown or all those decades of product endorsements. (Seriously, who ever has thought, I bet that depressed kid knows a thing or two about life insurance?) As far back as 1965 and the sublime A Charlie Brown Christmas, the process of adapting Peanuts has been that of softening it: On the comics page, Lucy and company spent the first three weeks of December calling Charlie Brown a blockhead — they'd never pass the last one celebrating his big heart with a carol.
The strip was truer to the cruelty and indifference of children than its spinoffs would dare. For TV, Schulz and director Bill Melendez imposed comforting resolution upon it, a promise that, for all their anxieties and humiliations, the ol' Chucks of the world will somehow win over the little shits who make their lives unbearable. That's at odds with the strip's steady calendar of disappointments, which come and go with the seasons: Spring is for kite failure, summer is for losing ballgames and Christmas and Valentine's Day — well, those only emphasize loneliness. If we're comfortable with happy endings in adaptations of Peanuts — or endings at all — then there's little reason we should feel betrayed by hearing the voice of the Little Red-Haired Girl.
The filmmakers present Charlie Brown's longing as universal, and perhaps it is. Schulz himself spread the pathos around: Lucy pines for Schroeder, and Sally embarrasses Linus with her “Sweet Babboo” business. All that's in the movie, but only the lead's feelings are treated with weight or seriousness. Peppermint Patty seems to like Charlie Brown, but neither he nor The Peanuts Movie gets that that's worth noticing. Sally has a fine anxious scene when she's a dud in front of a crowd, but of the supporting cast only Snoopy exhibits much depth or soul. Couldn't some of those Red Baron battles have been trimmed to show us, as Schulz did, that Lucy aches, too? And kids unacquainted with the characters may wonder why the potato-headed kid in the striped red top once in a while hides under a blanket.
But such sins of omission are minor compared with all that the filmmakers get right. The story is all typical days and minor crises, following Charlie Brown through a winter and up to the last day of the school year, drifting from moment to moment rather than shoving him through a plot. The feeling, at times, is of taking in several months' worth of strips in one go — not reading them, exactly, as no studio would dare the full contemplative sparseness of those panels where Linus and his pal discuss life at a stone wall. Instead, it's like seeing those comics adapted by devotees of the TV cartoons: Miss Othmar's voice is a muted trombone, the kids' are real kids', and Snoopy's is the upset-tummy growl of Melendez, director of the specials you grew up with. The kids dance. Franklin gets a lot of lines and even, at last, is revealed to have a trait: He's got his class's third best test score!
The title card claims this Peanuts is “by Schulz,” but there are voices here besides his. What matters is that his is honored — and that this is as sincere a pumpkin patch as Hollywood can grow.
THE PEANUTS MOVIE | Directed by Steve Martino | 20th Century Fox | Citywide