Film Review: Some Pretty Good Grief

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Keeping both nostalgia and modernization in check, “The Peanuts Movie” delivers pure fun.

Lucy is none too pleased with Charlie Brown’s newfound celebrity status, in “The Peanuts Movie. The 3-D imagining of the iconic Charles M. Schulz strip opens in wide release Friday. (Twentieth Century Fox/Peanuts Worldwide)

Lucy is none too pleased with Charlie Brown’s newfound celebrity status, in “The Peanuts Movie.” The 3-D imagining of the iconic Charles M. Schulz strip opens in wide release Friday. (Twentieth Century Fox/Peanuts Worldwide)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment

For those of you with a Twitter-esque attention span, I’ll cut to the heart of the matter: “The Peanuts Movie” is pretty terrific. It opens tomorrow and you’ll enjoy it.

Now for the rest of us, who remember the thoughtful, deliberate pacing of Charles M. Schulz’s masterful comic strip, I can elaborate.

When the trailers for the film were first released, there were undoubtedly hordes of Peanuts faithful who stood wary of turning the beloved characters into modern, three-dimensional creations. The gang has been around since 1950 and basically created the standard and model for nearly every comic strip that followed. It so permeated our culture that we have adopted phrases like “good grief” and “security blanket” into our lexicon. You almost certainly have some item in your home at this very moment bearing the likeness of Snoopy.

So why mess with a national treasure? Whether it was necessary may be debatable, but in this case, the makers of “The Peanuts Movie” had priceless input from the son and the widow of Schulz, who died – most ironically – on the day his final strip was published in 2000.

Then there’s the issue of, as 20th Century Fox claims, this being the Peanuts gang’s “big screen debut.” As a kid, I vividly remember clamoring into the Mann Theater in Pasadena to see “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” in 1977. Before that was “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” but I digress…

The film’s 3-D effects are at their best when Snoopy is on the tail of the elusive Red Baron. (Twentieth Century Fox/Peanuts Worldwide)

The film’s 3-D effects are at their best when Snoopy is on the tail of the elusive Red Baron. (Twentieth Century Fox/Peanuts Worldwide)

Where “The Peanuts Movie” succeeds – and happily so – is in its faith in the strength of its source material. It is, of course, computer-generated 3-D, but its honest spirit lies in the original hand-drawn simplicity of its art, much of which makes its way into the film. Director Steve Martino and a team of writers that includes Schulz’s son Craig have resisted any temptation to modernize the world in which Charlie Brown and company reside. No one’s got a smartphone and there are no jokes at the expense of the strip’s legacy. On the contrary, items like rotary telephones and manual typewriters seem perfectly commonplace, and the kids’ lives are filled with the easy pleasures of ice skating, flying kites and school dances.

The story, while somewhat familiar and not terribly complex, finds Charlie Brown smitten with the new girl in town – the Little Red-haired Girl, of course. To watch as one unfortunate – occasionally hilarious – mishap after another befalls the boy as he tries to make a good impression becomes sheer delight as the strength of his character is revealed at crucial moments. Truly, you’re a good man, Charlie Brown.

Neatly weaved into Charlie’s plight is the imaginary storyline of Snoopy battling the famed/notorious World War I fighter pilot, Manfred von Richthofen, more universally known as the Red Baron. It is in these sequences where the 3-D is at its best, drawing the audience into a benign, yet exciting series of aerial acrobatics.

For all its pizzazz, however, Snoopy’s scene-stealing doesn’t take over the film as it easily could have. This is Charlie Brown’s movie, as sweet and sincere as the round-headed kid himself. There are some great one-liners, many from Peppermint Patty, who should earn a few more fans after this hits theaters. The story moves briskly through its 92 minutes, along the way utilizing several original recordings of Vince Guaraldi’s music, including the classic “Linus and Lucy” and “Christmastime Is Here.”

The rendering of 2-D characters into depth of flesh and blood has some quirks, most notably in the area of hair. There’s a slight degree of creepiness to the wild strands atop the heads of Linus and Pig-Pen, but those distractions are pretty slight. Conversely, Peppermint Patty’s hair is superbly realized.

By shunning any perceived need to “update it for the kids,” the makers of “The Peanuts Movie” have produced a thoughtful, refreshing and thoroughly entertaining film. They have achieved the feat in no small part by staying faithful to the sensibilities and gentle temperament of Peanuts’ creator.

Only a blockhead would have attempted otherwise.

“The Peanuts Movie” opens in wide release Friday. Rated G, 92 minutes.

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