A Thousand Words From A(n) (Ex-)Charlie Brown
DIRECTOR: STEVE MARTINO/2015
“After the Show” is our spoiler-friendly way of talking about movies at ZekeFilm. In this article, plot twists and hidden details of THE PEANUTS MOVIE are potentially discussed.
Halfway through his first starring feature in 35 years, good ol’ Charlie Brown is in a characteristically nerve-racking predicament: partnered with the Little Red-Haired Girl on a book report project, Charlie Brown decides to impress his absent partner by reading all 1500 pages of War and Peace over a weekend and condensing its entire significance to Western literature in Miss Othmar’s thousand-assigned words. Arriving on the 65th anniversary of the Peanuts comic strip’s October 2, 1950 debut, the 50th anniversary of the December 9, 1965 CBS broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the 15th anniversary of the comic’s final strip on February 13, 2000, The Peanuts Movie has, in my view, an equally daunting task of making Charles Schulz’s 50-year comic strip run into a latter-day 3D-animated movie. Despite my fears as a lifelong fan of Peanuts and its animated TV specials that The Peanuts Movie would somehow trivialize the legacy of the strip and its creator — or simply that Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and the rest would look “weird” in 3D — I’m happy (and a bit relieved) to report that Blue Sky Studios (Ice Age, Rio) and director Steve Martino, adapting a script co-written by Schulz’s son, Craig, and grandson, Bryan, succeeds both as entertainment and a worthy evocation of Schulz’s equally wistful and whimsical creation. As I have a thousand words to fill here myself, the best compliment I can give the movie is that it inspired me to ponder both the character of Charlie Brown and my past (and present) perception of him: indeed, who is Charlie Brown?
There having been a few bright spots on the comics pages of my childhood — Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Gary Larson’s The Far Side being chief among them; though I equally liked Garfield and a few others — the comic strip character I most identified with was undoubtedly Charlie Brown. From gut-wrenching punchlines to plaintive expressions of existential angst at Lucy’s 5-cent psychiatry stand, I believe cartoonist Charles Schulz’s alter-ego spoke for a lot of kids with his near-daily, head-hanging, depths-dejected “*SIGH*”. But still, however down Charlie Brown might appear, however hopeless his situation might be, Charlie Brown would be back again by tomorrow’s opening panel to fly another kite, throw another pitch, kick another football… Tied up and hanging from a tree, knocked head-over-heels (and shorts-over-shirt) from the pitcher’s mound, and landing flat on his back with a resounding “WHAM!”, Charlie Brown nevertheless always managed to rise upon stepping-stones of his dead self, paraphrasing Lord Tennyson (and not that out of keeping with a strip that consistently referenced classical music, contemporary art, and history), to not necessarily “higher things,” but at least the possibility, however remote, of better things.
Because, say what you want about everyone’s favorite “blockhead”— many of them even self-applied: “failure,” “insecure,” “inadequate” — Charlie Brown was certainly no quitter.
The Peanuts Movie decision to focus its attention squarely on this aspect of Charlie Brown’s character — with all its marketing expressly summed up, basically, as “life’s lovable loser resolves to WIN! WIN! WIN!” — was a wise and surprisingly faithful one; the episodic plot, also in keeping with its source material, revolving around our unlikely hero’s consistent failure to impress the Little Red-Haired Girl, or to get her simply to notice him. Always an off-screen (or, rather, “off-panel”) character in the comic strip, the animators preserve some of this necessary “distance” between Charlie Brown and the object of his, well, “insecurities” with a consistently-detailed back-and-side view of the Little Red-Haired Girl’s eponymous ribbon-and-bouffant coiffure. And if you’re a shy lad like Charlie Brown, you’ll know that’s probably the best view you’ll ever get of a girl who doesn’t know you’re alive.
As the plot moves towards glimpses of a full 3/4-profile “reveal” (animator-speak, ‘natch) of his red-hued “unattainable,” Charlie Brown’s efforts, in succession, to enter a talent show, compete in a dance contest, write the aforementioned book report — and even ride out a storm of unprecedented attention, acclaim, and popularity as he is unaccountably hailed a certified “genius” (through the best implicit criticism I have yet seen of standardized testing!) — all end in hilarious disaster, the best thing I can say about the movie, again, is that after 65 years of humiliation and defeat, Charlie Brown here continues to find those stepping-stones to rise upon.
Well, that’s mostly what I wanted to say, but as someone well-acquainted with failure himself, I realize with some resignation that even our best efforts don’t always meet with success. Which, I suppose, seems a very Charlie Brown thing to say. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe I would have liked to have said more about how the movie struck a good balance between Schulz’s huge cast of characters — from Peppermint Patty to Pig-Pen — and that even a “showboat” like Snoopy and his typewritten-fantasies of (literal) dogfights with the Red Baron doesn’t detract from what is essentially Charlie Brown’s story. Maybe I should have mentioned how both the animation and music visually and aurally “quote” animator Bill Melendez and musician Vince Guaraldi’s iconic work for the groundbreaking Peanuts specials and that, even for a purist like me, the newfangled sheen of computer-generated imagery, along with the inclusion of recent pop music, wasn’t really all that jarring.
Maybe I could have said a lot of things, but as I wrap up my own thousand words here, what struck me most in viewing The Peanuts Movie, and possibly the reason I decided to write about it, was my own relationship to a character who I have so closely identified with for most of my life. Somewhere along life’s weary course, though, I compromised that Charlie Brown part of myself; the part of me that persevered despite — and in the full face of — insurmountable, kite-flying odds and soul-crushing, football-kicking futility. Yes, I no longer deserve to call myself a “Charlie Brown,” but I’m happy to say, yet again, that this nice little kids movie reminded me just a little of when I might have.
So, my “report” done, I can once again submit myself to the possible rejection of public opinion by Miss Othmar’s evaluation of my hard-won thousand words: “wah-wah-waaahhh.” (Translation: “C-minus.”) The sky falls, the earth shakes, and one’s very soul screams “ARGGGH!!!” Oh, well. If nothing else, then, maybe present and former Charlie Browns alike can here join me in a heartfelt *SIGH*.