I know more than a few multi-generational families who find the Christmas holidays a trying time. While they rightly have the sense they should be together as much as possible, there aren’t that many activities that can captivate small children while engaging parents and grandparents too.
My feeling is that such families could do a whole lot worse than sitting together in the dark for 80 minutes or so, watching Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang of appealing characters created by legendary cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, in The Peanuts Movie. It strikes me as a rare but genuine example of what the film industry likes to call ‘all-the- family entertainment.’
Schulz’s cartoon strip, which came to be syndicated in thousands of newspapers worldwide, first saw light of day back in 1950, and has remained a creature of its time – small-town, post-war America, an agreeable, peaceful, optimistic place to reside.
But The Peanuts Movie pulls off a neat trick, retaining the period charm of the old cartoon strips while equipping itself with up-to-date visual trickery. It’s in 3-D, and depends on computer generated imagery (CGI) throughout. (The film was produced by the animation studio Blue Sky, best known for the Ice Age series.)
The sometimes chilly efficiency of digital animation may seem miles removed from the rudimentary quality of Schulz’s crooked line drawings, but somehow the two elements have been skilfully blended. And the charm and warmth of Schulz’s great creation survives unsullied.
The film is true to its period. There are no computers or smartphones in sight. This is a world of landlines and pencils; and when Snoopy the dog devises outrageous stories of his fantasy life, it’s a typewriter he still uses.
As for the story, it’s a simple affair, tracking a year in the life of lovable Charlie Brown, the hapless young boy with a good heart who tries his best to be ‘a winner’ but invariably gets things wrong. A series of incidents make the point succinctly; Charlie wants to impress the newest member of his class, the ‘little red-haired girl’ familiar to Schulz fans. But his schemes are inevitably thwarted, often because Charlie’s sweetness and selflessness work against him.
These days Snoopy has arguably replaced Charlie Brown as the most popular Peanuts character, and he is still day-dreaming from the top of his kennel about being a World War I ace pilot, locked in combat with the Red Baron. These scenes are the most technically accomplished, but the heart of The Peanuts Movie is with Charlie and his friends – Lucy, Linus, Schroder, Pigpen, Peppermint Patti and the rest – and their earthbound adventures, at school and at play in their neighbourhood.
There are some lovely touches here. It’s great to know that whenever Snoopy laughs or the little yellow bird Woodstock chirrups, their voices are that of Bill Melendez, from the original Charlie Brown TV specials. Melendez died in 2008, but recordings of his voice have been specially rendered for this new film.
I also liked the fact that the film confirms itself as being in a world of children, through the absence of adult voices on the soundtrack. When a teacher or a parent ‘speaks,’ all we hear is a ‘wah-wah’ noise, played by the versatile musician Trombone Shorty.
The Peanuts Movie has tremendous heart. Whatever age you may be, there’s probably something alluring in it for you. Children will love its adorable characters, while adults may appreciate Schulz’s sly, dry, wise but kindly wit. Overall, it’s the cinematic equivalent of a warm hug.
The Peanuts Movie opens on Monday, 21 December.
Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.