Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Peanuts Movie

Year 9, Day 147 - 5/27/17 - Movie #2,642

BEFORE: This is another film, like the "Ice Age" series, produced by Blue Sky Studios - and I do have friends that work there, so I'll try to be nice tonight.  I'm not sure if I can do it...

This film's been on the list for a short while, but always in the "unlinkable" section, because of someone's decision to use relatively unknown child actors to voice the characters - I have to rely on a voice actor named Randy Thom, who carries over from "Ice Age: Collision Course" where he voiced the minister in the marriage scene at the end.  Here he provides "additional voices".  I found out too late that the kid who voices Charlie Brown here is also in the show "Stranger Things" and the film "Bridge of Spies", but I think going from "Bridge of Spies" to this film might be too jarring - so the chain continues as planned.

It's the start of Memorial Day weekend, so I've got an opportunity to catch up on some TV over the next three days - those 3 missing episodes of "Mad Men", all the talk shows from the past week (that's how I get my Trump news, through the comedy filter) and we'll watch episodes 3 & 4 of "Twin Peaks: The Return" too.  Note: I'm a professional, I don't recommend that anyone else watch both "Twin Peaks" and "The Peanuts Movie" right after each other - they're really on opposite ends of the spectrum.

THE PLOT: Snoopy embarks upon his greatest mission as he takes to the skies to pursue his arch-nemesis, while his best pal Charlie Brown begins his own epic quest to win the love of his life.

AFTER: Right about now, my BFF Andy is cringing somewhere, because he and I have argued over the years concerning the merits of Charles Schulz and his "Peanuts" gang - Andy is for, and I'm usually against.  I can't deny that these characters occupy a special place in the hearts of many, many people, but as I've said many times, the cartoonist himself was a giant hack.  The original comic strip ran from 1950 to 2000, which is an incredible run - my issue, however, is that Schulz stopped writing new gags somewhere around 1972.  (By contrast, the creators of "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Bloom County" stopped their strips or took time off once they realized they were repeating themselves - but Schulz just kept on going...)  Once he'd established the characters' personalities and what their interactions were, it was just a case of "repeat as necessary".  Lucy's going to pull the football away from Charlie Brown's kick twice a year, Linus is going to spend Halloween in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown's going to get his clothes knocked off by a baseball, and Snoopy's going to pretend his doghouse is a biplane and he's fighting in World War I.  Repeat as necessary.

Which was all fine - when I was a kid.  But then I made the mistake of growing up (partially, anyway) and started reading "Bloom County" and "Doonesbury" and "Foxtrot", etc. and realized that comic strips can acknowledge the modern world, they can even make fun of the President or make references to current movies.  They didn't HAVE to be stuck in some 1950's idealized version of the world where you never see an adult, and all kids do is go to school, play sports and celebrate holidays.  Now, as always, your mileage will vary, and maybe you enjoy spending time reading the same comic strip plots over and over - maybe you have a kid or two and this is your world, paying attention to their schoolwork and sports and watching them have their first crushes, but that's not MY world.  I haven't had any use for the "Peanuts" gang in years.  Maybe I'm just a cynical man in a cynical world, but that's where I find myself.

The worst offense is the fact that they run those SAME damn Halloween and Christmas specials every year - I mean, I'm all for nostalgia, but enough is enough already.  Is there a man, woman or child alive who hasn't seen both of these damn things before, who doesn't know that Charlie Brown is going to buy a pathetic Christmas tree or that Linus is going to explain the true meaning of Christmas or that Charlie Brown is going to get a rock in his trick or treat bag (umm, nobody gives out rocks on Halloween, guys, that's not even a thing.)

So I can only imagine the challenges that were faced when someone pitched the idea of doing a "Peanuts" movie.  I worked in the world of character advertising for a couple decades, and I know that the companies that own characters are very particular.  If you want to animate an ad for Star-Kist tuna, there are rules.  You can't show Charlie the Tuna drinking, smoking, or the other thing.  He must have a specific Brooklyn accent.  He has to act like the smartest one in the room, but he can never, never come out on top.  (See also: Trix Bunny, the Vlasic stork, Chester Cheetah, etc.)

And so it is with Charlie Brown - how do you move the story forward when Charlie Brown has to remain the everyman that we all identify with, the lovable loser, the guy who means well.  The corporation that owns the character probably resisted all attempts to modernize the story, because today's audiences seem to want crazy talking zoo animals, 47 collectible monster characters and robots that turn into other things, and this is just a story about a bunch of kids who go to school and do regular kid stuff.  Plus, it has to retain that "every time" feel, so to appeal to kids and nostalgic adults there can't be any references to computers, smartphones or anything that didn't exist in 1972.  (While writing his book report, I swear, Charlie Brown in this film uses a fountain pen.  Really?  NO ONE today uses a fountain pen, even if a kid today didn't own a computer, he would use a ballpoint, right?).

Plus, the Schulz family probably had a laundry list of "Peanuts" touchstones that they wanted to be worked into this plot.  "We'd like to see references to the kite-eating tree, Lucy has to pull the football away at least once, and of course we need to see Snoopy fighting the Red Baron..."  Considering all the things that had to be worked into this film, and all the modern-day tropes that probably had to be avoided, I'd say somebody did a great job of checking all the boxes here.  You can see how far the writers had to bend over backwards - in order to work in both scenes of kids ice-skating AND Charlie Brown flying a kite, C.B. decides to fly a kite in the winter, to try to outsmart the kite-eating tree.  It's the sort of logic a perennial loser might follow (like George Costanza accidentally getting success by doing the opposite of what he thinks he should do) and ultimate it doesn't work, but it checked off two of the required boxes...

Meanwhile, Charlie Brown's life gets turned upside-down when the Little Red-Haired Girl (With No Name, Apparently) moves in across the street, and C.B. is smitten, but unsure how to proceed.  His plans to perform a magic act at the school talent show AND cover for the LRHG by doing a book-report for the both of them (NITPICK POINT: No teacher assigns dual book reports...that's not a thing either.) but all of his plans are for naught.  He over-reaches by trying to hand in a report on the "greatest book ever" but unfortunately, that turns out to be "War and Peace".  The one time that things seem to be going Chuck's way is when he somehow gets a perfect score on a standardized test, but due to a sitcom-like confusion, we know that's eventually going to be revealed as a mistake also.

Now, I may be old but I still remember grade school.  I was that smart kid (at least until 7th grade) who frequently got perfect scores on quizzes and tests.  I don't remember any other kids in class celebrating my success, so that's NITPICK POINT #2.  If anything, scoring well on tests worked against me socially, especially if the teacher was grading on a curve, but even if not, I got branded a "brain" and a "smarty-pants" (this was before "nerd" was a common word) and I was ostracized, more or less, or at least placed into a social archetype that I couldn't overcome.  The one time my achievements were celebrated came in high-school, after getting a near-perfect score on the PSAT.  (Good luck using that to increase your chances of getting a date - it can't be done. )

While I'm at it, here's NITPICK POINT #3: How are Linus and Lucy in the same class?  I thought Linus was Lucy's younger brother, so they should be in different grades.  They're not fraternal twins, as far as I know.  So unless this takes place in some small town where they've combined two classes into one, then they shouldn't be learning in the same room.  I always assumed that Linus was one year younger than Charlie Brown, which would put Linus in Sally's class, and that would make sense, she could have developed her crush on him there.  (EDIT: Ah, according to the IMDB "Goofs" section, Linus is so smart that he may have skipped a grade.  This fix works, but I'm not sure it's canon.)

Any N.P.'s I have about the things seen in Snoopy's story, like the fact that his doghouse biplane manages at one point to hover like a helicopter, are negated by the fact that this takes place during his fantasy, so by comparison none of that is real or should be held to the same standards.  And for once I don't have a problem with a film toggling between two realities or telling two stories in tandem, because it's very clear that Snoopy got a typewriter, is writing a story and we're seeing that fantasy unwind. (Where Snoopy learned the English language and how to type, however, still remains unexplained...)

Anyway, I think Blue Sky did a great job of moving the "Peanuts" franchise forward, and not just because the animation is CGI and makes the characters look rounder and less flat.  With only the elements of the past to work with, it's amazing that they were able to tell a story that will be universal enough to appeal to today's kids, who might not even notice how technologically backwards the setting is.  (After you explain to them what a biplane is, or a telephone land line, or for that matter, a fountain pen, library, and comic strip...).

Also starring the voices of Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Alexander Garfin, Noah Johnston (last heard in "Monsters University"), Anastasia Bredikhina, Rebecca Bloom, Venus Schulteis, Mariel Sheets, Madisyn Shipman, A.J. Tecce, Francesca Capaldi, Marleik Walker, William Wunsch, Bill Melendez, Kristin Chenoweth (last seen in "The Pink Panther").

RATING: 5 out of 10 hockey sticks

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