For someone of my generation, it’s the comfort food of movies.
And then some.
The gang’s all here: Charlie Brown and Snoopy, of course, but also Woodstock, Linus and Lucy, Sally, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Pig Pen (who has a dirt-free cameo moment), and the rest. And at long last, we get a peek at that most important but mysterious of characters: the Little Red-Haired Girl.
The story runs on two parallel tracks, two love stories. Poor hapless Charlie Brown, who sees himself as a perpetual failure, is smitten with the Little Red-Haired Girl (we never learn her name) who has just moved in across the street. He wants to meet her, but goes to pieces at the very thought. After a nickel’s worth of psychiatric consultation with Lucy, Charlie Brown walks away with a self-help manual that promises to get him noticed as a winner. Will it work? Can he somehow impress the new girl, or even get her to notice him?
The other story stars Snoopy, who is writing a story in which he imagines himself as (what else) the World War I flying ace, trying to rescue his love Fifi (a coquettish ace pilot herself) from the clutches of the Red Baron. These scenes provide the requisite action sequences that make the film more than just a television special, and give the animators creative room to breathe. Some critics have complained that the Red Baron storyline gets too much airtime, but I think this misses the point. Snoopy gets to write his own story, and therefore, he’s the hero (with Woodstock’s help) and gets the girl.
What about Charlie Brown?
The movie, despite 3D embellishment, has the look, the feel, and even the sound of the Peanuts specials I loved as a kid. Old tracks of the late Bill Melendez give us the familiar voices of Snoopy and Woodstock, and the adults still sound like muted trumpets. Vince Guaraldi tracks are comfortably mixed in with a more contemporary score. And all the expected narrative set pieces are there: Charlie Brown vs. the kite-eating tree; Lucy running about in a panic over dog germs; Charlie Brown getting his clothes knocked off on the pitcher’s mound. Indeed, so many of these elements are included that at times it feels like watching a rerun.
But the heart of the movie — and it’s a considerable heart — is in its tender send-up of unrequited puppy love. Lucy has a crush on Schroeder; Sally moons over her “sweet babboo” Linus; Patty wants to be school partners with Pig Pen; and even Peppermint Patty flirts with Charlie Brown. Poor Charlie Brown seems to be the only boy in the crowd who’s actually discovered girls, and it’s tormenting him. “She’s something, and I’m nothing,” he laments to Lucy. What chance could he possibly have?
In the comic strip, Charlie Brown was always the loser. In A Charlie Brown Christmas (first shown fifty years ago!), he has a few redemptive moments after hearing Linus’ rendition of the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke. The Peanuts Movie takes that positive trajectory even further. It’s almost as if Charles Schulz’s son and grandson, who wrote and produced the movie, decided to finally and posthumously give Charles the triumphant ending he could never give himself. Even God seems to approve, as Charlie Brown’s moment of glory seems to come as a miraculous answer to prayer that nonetheless keeps ol’ Chuck’s ineptitude intact.
Any parent concerned about what ABC did to The Muppets needn’t worry here. The Peanuts Movie is faithful to the original, right down to its hand-drawn folksiness. And though the moral of the story is a bit overplayed, it’s not unwelcome: being a person of good character, particularly of compassion and honesty, is more important than being a “success” in worldly terms.
And, oh, yes: if you care about such things, stay all the way through the credits. You’ll be rewarded with a bit more of Vince Guaraldi, and a final scene that’s completely unnecessary — but cute.