erik lundegaard

Monday November 09, 2015

Movie Review: The Peanuts Movie (2015)


Well, at least it gets a lot of the details right. In its 90-minute runtime, we see/hear:

  • Vince Guaraldi music
  • Crack the whip on a frozen pond
  • The kite-eating tree
  • The little red-haired girl, and the teeth marks on her pencil
  • Miss Othmar
  • Adult voices going wah wah, wah wawa wah
  • “No Dogs Allowed”
  • “It was a dark and stormy night”
  • Joe Cool
  • Psychiatric Help: 5 cents

Charlie Brown is called a blockhead, Frieda calls out her naturally curly hair, and Sally calls Linus, who carries around his security blanket, her “Sweet Baboo.” The Peanuts MovieThey‘re not even concerned about updating anything for the 21st century. Kids still talk on land lines, Snoopy still writes on a typewriter, and he still fights “the Great War” versus “The Red Baron” in his “Sopwith Camel.”

No surprise that the details are right. The movie was written by Charles M. Schulz’s son and grandson, Craig and Bryan Schulz, along with family friend Cornelius Uliano. It’s directed by Steve Martino (“Horton Hears a Who!”).

But they still missed it.

Question: What is the essence of Charlie Brown?

It’s more than just losing. In the best of the movies and TV specials, the essence of Charlie Brown is to lose and to get over the sting of that loss through the wisdom of Linus, his right-hand man and personal priest. In a sense, Charlie Brown represents the fall of man while Linus articulates the redemptive impulse of God.

The most obvious example of this is in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” After Charlie Brown is made director of the school paegant, he tries to counteract its overt commercialism with a tiny tree. That tree is really a version of himself, isn’t it: overlooked and unloved. And, true to form, everyone hates it. But then Linus tells Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas, and Charlie Brown, momentarily happy, puts a bulb on the tree. It falls over, apparently dead. So Linus to the rescue again. He declares that the tree just needs a little love. The tree is resurrected, Charlie Brown is redeemed, the spirit of Christmas is saved.

Here’s an even more interesting example. In Schulz's first feature-length movie, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” Charlie Brown winds up in a national spelling bee and seems on the verge of winning, but then misspells, of all words, “beagle,” and is crushed. He actually sinks into depression: in bed all day, shades drawn. It’s Linus who gets him out of it. He comes over, raises the shades, tells him all the kids at school miss him. But Charlie Brown is adamant: He’ll never go to school again, never play baseball again, never do anything again. So Linus offers this:

I suppose you feel you let everyone down, and you made a fool out of yourself and everything. But did you notice something, Charlie Brown? The world didn’t come to an end.

The world didn’t come to an end. That’s some cold comfort right there. But it gets Charlie Brown out of bed. And he sees girls skipping rope and boys playing marbles. Linus was right. Then he sees Lucy with the football. He thinks she doesn’t see him but she does; so when he tries to sneak a kick, she pulls the ball away (again) and he winds up flat on his back (again). “Welcome home, Charlie Brown,” she says with a smile, while he remains on his back, face turned with chagrin toward the camera.

That’s the ending. It’s amazing to me that that’s the ending. Here’s the lesson of that first “Peanuts” movie: in a world of gut-wrenching defeats like the spelling bee, you should be grateful for your everyday defeats, like Lucy pulling away the football. That’s how you know the world didn’t end: When you’re defeated in warm, familiar ways. That's how you know you‘re home. 

Now let’s compare this to the new movie, in which Charlie Brown tries to impress the new girl in town, the little red-haired girl, whom he’s too tongue-tied to talk to. Among his schemes:

  1. Win the talent show
  2. Dance exceptionally at the dance
  3. Write a great book report

What happens?

  1. He has to choose between peforming his magic act and helping Sally, and he chooses the latter.
  2. He begins to dance well, which means he’ll get to dance with the little red-haired girl; but then he slips on some punch and the sprinkler system is activated. Party over
  3. He’s partnered with the little red-haired girl for the book report, but she’s away for the weekend and the report is due on Monday; so he reads the entirety of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (which he initially thinks is a book called “Leo’s Toy Store” by Warren Peace), and writes a 1,000-word report, which is subsequently, literally, cut to shreds by a toy “Red Baron” fighter plane that keeps buzzing through town—a running gag.

The kids also take a standardized test, and Charlie Brown, initially flummoxed, scores an unprecedented 100%. For this, he’s celebrated, since we all know how popular brainy kids are at school. Other kids even start wearing Charlie Brown’s trademark yellow shirt with the black stripe. (Sally, the merchandiser, has a line that reverberates less with irony than the corporate chutzpah of Fox Studios: “You have to cash in while you can,” she says.) And the school holds an assembly in his honor. But there, on stage, he realizes the test isn’t his; it’s Peppermint Patty’s. Once again, he’s faced with a moral dilemma. Once again, he does the right thing.

Which sets up our ending.

In the final school assignment, kids are asked to choose a summer pen pal, and the little red-haired girl chooses Charlie Brown. Why? He needs to ask her! But circumstances intervene, and soon she’s about to board a bus for summer camp; so he rushes to see her before she can leave. At one point, it all seems hopeless. There are too many kids between him and her. But now the world, in the form of the kite-eating tree, intervenes on his behalf, and he’s lifted above the crowd and set back down to earth. (Kite ex machina.) And there, with everyone gathered around, he talks to the little red-haired girl for the first time. For the first time, we get to see her. And she talks about the various things he’s done in this movie; and she tells him why she chose him as a pen pal. 

“You have all the qualities I admire,” she says.

Which is sweet. But it’s not exactly “The world didn’t come to an end, Charlie Brown.”

“The Peanuts Movie” is OK. They do a good job with the voices, and with some of the characters—Lucy in particular. We also get some funny lines. At the library when Charlie Brown searches for Tolstoy, for example: “He’s going into the grown-up section? Is that legal?”

But they screw up Charlie Brown. They make him someone who would succeed if he weren’t so moral and/or didn't have some temporary setbacks. He does write a good book report, he is a good dancer, he does have a good magic act. Why, with his pluck, he‘ll go far in life. And that’s just not Charlie Brown.

This is Charlie Brown. It’s from 1988. At the age of 25, I cut it out and saved it because I had my own unrequited love at the time. Seeing the strip made me happy. It told me that someone, somewhere, understood:

Charles M. Schulz Peanuts strip 

The one character given short shrift in the new movie is Linus, and you can guess why. When the ending is happy, when the girl you like tells you that you have all the qualities she admires, you don’t need a redemption song. But a quick note to Hollywood about happy endings: They don’t always make us happy.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Monday November 09, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2015  
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Twitter: @ErikLundegaard