Friday, November 6, 2015

The Peanuts Movie: Good grief!

The Peanuts Movie (2015) • View trailer 
Five stars. Rated G, and suitable for all ages

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.6.15

It’s truly amazing.

Philippe Petit’s 1974 wire-walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers notwithstanding, The Peanuts Movie is the best balancing act I’ve ever seen: an unerringly precise blend of Charles M. Schulz’s gentle, four-panel elegance with the high-spirited vitality of 21st century computer animation.

Lucy, far right, is disgusted when, after Charlie Brown's reputation takes a sudden upswing,
most of their classmates decide to imitate his "recipe for success."
It’s impossible to imagine the discussions, conferences, impassioned arguments and frustrated hair-pulling that must have taken place behind the scenes — Schulz’s family and artistic guardians on one side, Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox on the other — in order to deliver this miracle baby. One false step at any of scores of moments in the finished film, and the result would have failed to satisfy either camp.

But miracle it is, with the lion’s share of credit going to director Steve Martino, scripters Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, and vice president of 20th Century Fox Animation Ralph Millero. They, in turn, are quick to acknowledge the massive Blue Sky team that embraced the challenge of wholly inhabiting Charles Schulz’s Peanuts “atmosphere,” in order to faithfully adapt it for the sensibilities of modern moviegoers.

This film will live forever. Most immediately, though, it will create a whole new generation of fans.

Full disclosure demands an acknowledgment that I’m far from impartial, as a perusal of my publishing CV will reveal. If anything, though, that makes me hyper-critical, because I count myself among those devoted to preserving Charles Schulz’s role in the creation that has grown far, far larger than the humble newspaper medium that gave it birth.

I take second place to nobody, for example, when it comes to the fan-frenzy that erupted during television’s original run of Star Trek, and the excitement with which I greeted the initial news of the show’s first big-screen adaptation. But that didn’t stop me from ripping into the result — 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture — and branding it a leaden, overwrought stiff. (To this day, I’ve never gotten more hate mail for a single review.)

My razors thus were sharpened, my thesaurus of vitriolic adjectives at the ready, as “The Peanuts Movie” came ever closer to release.

The sword remains sheathed, thesaurus tossed aside.

What’s not to love?

As Craig Schulz has explained, while recounting this film’s eight-year journey from rough outline to finished cinematic jewel, he never wavered from his insistence that its heart and soul would rely on story, story, story. A narrative that would focus on the virtues that imbue good ol’ Charlie Brown. A tender moral that hearkens back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, when directors such as Frank Capra could make inspirational films without them being branded as “corny.”

Yes, we live today in a more cynical era — a more troubled time — which simply amplifies our need for the world as Charles Schulz saw it, and which has been retained here unapologetically, while getting a shiny new polish.

But not so burnished that the resulting glow obscures the essential elements that longtime fans have cherished, in many cases, for their entire lives. So while this is perhaps the most visually gorgeous CGI film yet made — with a lush, painterly quality that often evokes the hand-drawn splendor of a Studio Ghibli Miyazaki epic — The Peanuts Movie repeatedly acknowledges, sometimes almost subliminally, the nimble artistic line work that became Charles Schulz’s signature.

The film thus opens with the rendering of a newspaper strip panel of a winter scene, the pen-and-ink snow smoothly morphing into 3D CGI flakes, thus “drawing us into” the neighborhood inhabited by Charlie Brown and his friends. In a deliberate nod to TV’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s soft bossa nova backdrop, we meet the gang as they skate on a frozen pond.

They’re all here, even long-ago newspaper strip regulars such as Violet and the original Patty, both of whom were phased out in the late 1960s. Pig-Pen’s dust cloud never has looked more fully dimensioned (or dirtier); Snoopy’s antics never have been livelier.

Mild sight gags and snatches of dialog are lifted directly from classic Peanuts strips; Craig Schulz includes bits of his father’s droll wit whenever possible.

The plot smoothly eases into two parallel events in Charlie Brown’s life: his desire to shed the blockhead image, in the eyes of his friends — to do something successful — and the degree to which this goal is influenced by a moving van that pulls up to the house directly across the street from his own. One of the new neighbors: a certain Little Red-Haired Girl who, with appropriate cinematic coyness, isn’t glimpsed sufficiently to reveal her face.

Cue Charlie Brown’s even more frantic determination to achieve personal greatness, as his heart goes thumpity-thump: efforts that propel him into dance lessons, working up an act for a school talent show, and even academic expertise. Lucy jeers such resolve; Linus quietly encourages it; Sally bounces off the walls; Peppermint Patty flirts shamelessly when not falling asleep in class.

Snoopy’s active imagination, meanwhile, has been provoked by a runaway model WWI German Fokker (the fugitive model itself becoming an ongoing sight gag as the film progresses). We’re thus hurled into a parallel storyline wherein Snoopy, as the WWI Flying Ace — ably assisted by a ground crew consisting of Woodstock and his itty-bitty birdie buddies — takes to the skies in order to hunt down the infamous Red Baron.

The stakes here become even more dire with the arrival of Fifi, a pink-ribboned pooch flying her own Allied plane, whose flirtatious gaze entrances the world-famous beagle. (Fifi is “voiced” by surprise guest star Kristin Chenoweth, although you’d be hard-pressed to identify her.)

We thus get two movies for the price of one, as Martino cross-cuts between these contrasting dramas. The tone, pacing and even the very look of each “half” is distinct.

Charlie Brown’s travails unfold in the relaxed fashion of old-style moviemaking, with leisurely edits, slow double-takes, and suspenseful pauses; never has a doorbell — as just one example — waited so long to be rung. These “real world” scenes, in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood and at school, are styled with muted background colors, in order to help the more vibrant characters “pop” in each scene.

Snoopy’s flights of fancy, in perceptible contrast, push the deeper spectrum of the color palette, which in turn grants greater contrast to the primarily white Snoopy and Fifi. As Snoopy’s various skirmishes with the Red Baron roar across Western European skies, cityscapes beneath take on a pastel — and heightened-reality — quality.

The film’s pacing also shifts during Snoopy’s aerial exploits, adopting the rat-a-tat editing more characteristic of modern animated films (or vintage Warner Bros. cartoons, with their frenzied action sequences).

And if the strafing, barrel-rolling airplanes seem to move with impressive authenticity — particularly in this film’s excellent use of 3D — that’s no accident; Craig Schulz is a longtime pilot and vintage plane aficionado. In a further indication of attention to detail, supervising sound editor/mixer Randy Thom and his crew traveled to Santa Rosa’s Pacific Coast Air Museum, to record Schulz doing several runway passes in his biplane, just to get truly authentic sound effects.

Note, though, that despite all of Snoopy’s furious action atop his Sopwith Camel, we never see the lower portion of the doghouse ... because, of course, it never really leaves the ground. How could it, since all the combat occurs only in Snoopy’s imagination? (Or is that actually true? Charles Schulz always was adept at messing with our existential minds.)

The Peanuts Movie is laden with clever, crafty little touches like that, not to mention a wealth of “Easter eggs” that will be appreciated by longtime fans. As just one example, Charles Schulz’s linework often pops up when a given character’s eyes, nose and mouth display surprise or agitation. But it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fleeting; I only became certain after glimpsing it several times.

These touches are vital in terms of the film’s overall look — I also love the “plush quality” of Snoopy’s fur — which in turn serves the core storyline that pushes Charlie Brown to ever increasing degrees of angst, as he faces an escalating series of moral choices between what he’d like to do ... and what he should do. Everything builds to a potent, aw-shucks climax on par with the best poignant finales in all of Peanuts history.

(I’ve always been particularly fond of the closing scenes in Charlie Brown’s All-Stars and 1969’s first big-screen Peanuts movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.)

Rest assured, though; the scripting trio also includes plenty of hilarious sight gags, snarky retorts and just-plain-fun stuff, often at the expense of Charlie Brown’s dignity, and frequently as a result of Snoopy’s mischievous interference. Extended sequences of merriment play out against infectious, toe-tapping pop tunes by Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida; the bulk of the orchestral underscore — most memorably the WWI Flying Ace’s aerial exploits — comes from film composer Christophe Beck.

And yes, as already noted, Martino also choreographs numerous scenes to Guaraldi’s most iconic Peanuts themes.

When the final scene freezes, with Charlie Brown and his friends in a joyous cluster, and the dazzling 3D artwork morphs back to Charles M. Schulz’s pen-and-ink illustration ... well, that’s a powerful moment. And it gets even more powerful, when Schulz’s familiar signature writes itself in the lower right corner. Don’t be surprised if you burst into tears.

Oh, and do hang around until the very end of the closing credits. You’ll be rewarded with one more droll sight gag.

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