Back in 1997, when L.A. Weekly critic Manohla Dargis gave a negative review to The Lost World, the hotly-anticipated sequel to Jurassic Park, she noted that not liking the movie was the equivalent of announcing that Christmas had been canceled to its fans. In kind, giving a thumbs-down to The Peanuts Movie is something like punching people in their childhood or—in the parlance of Charles Schulz’s creation—yanking the football away just as they’re about to kick it. There’s no pleasure in being underwhelmed by this movie. It’s often adorable and sweet and cute, and in a weird way that’s all that it is. I have no doubt plenty of fans of Charlie Brown and Company will be more than satisfied by this faithful big-screen version. But for me, what’s it being faithful to isn’t necessarily the Peanuts I love best.
Running less than 90 minutes, The Peanuts Movie is an obvious labor of love. Where other venerable pop-culture institutions, like the Muppets, try to stay relevant by modernizing, this 3D animated film is like traveling back in time. Specifically, it recalls the hand-drawn innocence of those holiday specials of the 1960s and ‘70s: A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. If you have those and the other specials memorized, you’ve essentially seen The Peanuts Movie already.
Directed by Steve Martino and produced by Blue Sky Studios (which made the Ice Age films), the movie plays like a mashup of indelible bite-sized pieces of Peanuts lore. Yes, Lucy calls people “blockhead,” Charlie Brown sighs “Good grief!” and when there’s a dance scene, everybody breaks out in the patented moves from A Charlie Brown Christmas that are so ingrained in the culture that they still get parodied. The film is “faithful” to our collective memories of Schulz’s characters—no dark, 21st-century reboot or snarky update here—and maybe that’s enough for some. After all, what’s wrong with seeing the old Peanuts gang back together doing their thing? The movie allows adults to relive part of their past and gives young kids a gateway drug to one of the most enduring comic strips of the last century, even though its originator has been gone for 15 years now. Why complain about that?
It’s hard to distance nostalgia from the movie at all; there are enough surface pleasures in The Peanuts Movie to make it hard to begrudge fans the trip down memory lane. (And the Schulz family was reportedly closely involved in the production to ensure that it wouldn’t wildly deviate from earlier Peanuts iterations.) But even those willing to submit might reject the Peanuts world that this one harkens back to. I don’t want to sound like that annoying guy at the party who loudly announces he loved a popular band back when they were being true to their indie, underground roots, but the Peanuts that means the most to me is the one that informed 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and also poked its head out in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s the one that writer Kevin Wong argued in favor of in his Kotaku essay, provocatively titled “How Snoopy Killed Peanuts.” Wong discusses a drop-off in the quality of the strip, which first hit newspapers in 1950, as Charlie Brown’s loyal dog became more prominent in the Peanuts universe around the 1970s:
As the strip progressed, the beagle hogged more and more of the spotlight in increasingly negative ways. And the intelligence and darkness of the strip, which once made it so distinctive on the comics landscape, was replaced by more mainstream, cutesy humor.
Wong makes a compelling case that the Peanuts comic strip was initially not about an adorable dog (or adorable kids) but, rather, “about the cruelties and hardships of being a child; children can be bullying, backstabbing, petty people. And sometimes, children can be irrational, and hate someone for no reason—simply ‘because.’” There’s often a real ache in those early strips, and that melancholy feeling carried over into A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is so moving precisely because there’s a fragility and sense of longing in the storyline. It’s certainly the only Christmas special supposedly aimed at kids that’s centered around an existential crisis about our place in the world.
Not that any of us noticed this when we were kids—we were in it for the shenanigans and Snoopy’s silliness—but if you watch it as an adult, it’s stunning how mature its temperament is. (You can’t quite believe a network let a special that argues against commercialization and gives plenty of room for Charlie’s crushing inferiority complex make it to air.) Yes, A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was written by Schulz, has a happy ending, but Charlie goes through hell to get there, practically undergoing a spiritual rebirth to arrive at a better place.
The Peanuts Movie incorporates plenty of elements of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but that deeper pathos—Schulz’s ability to temper sentiment with real feeling—doesn’t put in much of an appearance. The film is probably aimed more at kids than grownups, but so was the 1965 special, and it had a faith in its viewers’ sophistication that Martino and his team don’t seem to share.
Instead, The Peanuts Movie embodies the Peanuts era that is more recent but far more familiar to audiences. It’s the one seen in MetLife commercials or those Dolly Madison ads from the 1980s:
In other words, it’s the post-Snoopy takeover of Peanuts in which everything about the Schulz universe has been commodified. Charlie Brown is always a loser, Lucy is always angry, and Snoopy is always the mischievous rapscallion. In place of Schulz’s old wrestling with darker emotions, now the Peanuts are just ultra-sweet moppets whose less-savory characteristics are explained away as adorable quirks. And that’s the way they play in The Peanuts Movie, too. Lucy and others are terribly mean to Charlie Brown, who’s trying to work up the nerve to talk to the Little Red-Haired Girl, but the meanness is so un-examined precisely because the filmmakers know that we know the drill: That’s Lucy’s thing, you see. Consequently, The Peanuts Movie created this strange disconnect in me. The movie is so innocuously likable on its surface, but below is this undercurrent of casual, flippant snottiness that’s a glib simplification of the tonal juxtaposition Schulz used to weave during Peanuts’ prime.
Wong’s lament about Snoopy’s dominance of latter-day Peanuts applies to the film as well. In his essay, Wong traces the beagle’s evolution from actual dog to “a human in a dog costume ... almost as if Schulz was anticipating merchandise demands. Cuteness had replaced depth in a strip that had always celebrated the maturity and adult-like nature of precocious children.” So, yup, Joe Cool shows up at one point, and so does the World War I Flying Ace, as does Snoopy’s failed-writer persona sitting up on the roof of his doghouse banging away on that typewriter. Lots of people absolute adore Snoopy—I love Snoopy, too—but the way he’s incorporated into The Peanuts Movie is indicative of what became of Schulz’s creation. He’s merely a trademark, a Beloved Cultural Icon™, doing his usual routine.
Will you like The Peanuts Movie? I suspect you might. I like a lot of it, too. But sitting in the theater, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a stage-show revue, a theme-park rendition, of something that used to really matter to me. I believe that the filmmakers had nothing but affection in their hearts for Schulz and his characters. But they’re still perpetuating a lesser version of his magnificent work. People will no doubt love The Peanuts Movie because it’s very, very sweet. At its best, though, Peanuts knew sweetness wasn’t enough.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.