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'The Peanuts Movie' plays (almost) exactly like the old TV specials

Instead of going the lowest-common denominator "Alvin and the Chipmunks" route, "The Peanuts Movie" slavishly tries to recreate the old TV specials. And it mostly gets there.

‘The Peanuts Movie’
Director:
Steve Martino
Voices of: Noah Schnapp, Bill Melendez
Rating: G
4 (out of 5) Globes

A movie of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” could go the lowest common denominator cash-cow route and be another “Smurfs” or an “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” It could also go the other way: be a slavish recreation of the storied TV specials that started running in the 1960s. Improbably, mysteriously, “The Peanuts Movie” goes full-on for the latter. A lot of modern mass culture is about dredging up the past, playing to nostalgic streaks that are today, with our man-children and genuflection unto geek junk, never wider. “The Peanuts Movie” actually tries to be the geek junk. There’s a digital makeover, but seeks to play exactly like several old, only slightly refurbished TV specials stitched together over a just-long-enough 90 minutes.

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It pretty much, minus some quibbles, gets there too. The film is basically plotless, drifting from episode to episode, most of them related to baldie depresso Charlie Brown (voice of Noah Schnapp, an actual kid, just as in the specials) and his shy pursuit of the fabled “Little Red-Haired Girl” (Francesca Capaldi). Charlie Brown is a little overrepresented, with much of the other gang members — Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, her “sir”-spouting underling Marcie — mostly hanging in the background. Snoopy sometimes takes the reins, filing fairly repetitive chapters in his “Red Baron” saga or, better, unloading his diverse grab-bag of faces, including “nose-upturned imperious,” “tonguey gag reflex,” etc. It’s definitely for kids, but only in the way the specials (and the strip) are for kids, which is to say it taps into something primal and even sad.

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Snoopy and Woodstock’s voices are both pulled from archival clips of Bill Melendez, who also directed several of the specials and died in 2008. Those sounds don’t just provide an easy nostalgic kick, like hearing Peter Cullen, the O.G. Optimus Prime, in the “Transformers” movies. It shows how committed “Peanuts” is to being “Peanuts.” The designs are busy and lousy with the kinds of playful visual distortions that have been largely forgotten in an era when animation pointlessly tries to show off how much it can replicate real life. Though everyone’s cleanly digital, their faces are made to look hand-drawn and rough; its version of Snoopy is more expressive than most actors.

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Perhaps most importantly, it captures how the specials weren’t beholden to story. It’s not a very 2015 movie. It’s no origin story, it doesn’t tack on a dumb road trip plot, it doesn’t send them to space, it doesn’t needlessly expand their world. It doesn’t even have a token baddie, because it’s an unfailingly nice movie, albeit one that follows the ups and downs (though usually downs) of Charlie Brown’s spirits. There are times when “Peanuts” threatens to turn saccharine, to give too into Charlie Brown’s self-pity and make it more like an easily digestible, normal movie. But it always pulls back for a joke. There’s a token lesson learned at the end, but no more obtrusive than they were in the specials, and even the happy ending is undercut by a dispiriting turn of events.

“Peanuts” can be too meandering and shapeless, but there is enough shape there, mostly tied to Charlie Brown realizing his powerful mediocrity, even cosmic insignificance. The modest tragedy of Charlie Brown, after all, is that he’s not special, he is a clutz, he’s not that smart, he is a downer — or, as he poetically puts it, “an insecure, wishy-washy failure.” The movie could maybe stew a little more in his sadness, just as it could also be a little loopier, maybe dream up some sillier misadventures for the other characters. (It could also do something, anything with poor Franklin — one aspect of the specials to which the film didn’t need to be so allegiant.) Then again, you get the sense of a rich microcosm that’s only beginning to be explored again — though you don’t have to be too cynical to suspect any sequels won’t be this bold.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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