Monday, November 30, 2015

The Peanuts Movie (2015)

You know, watching the Ice Age short, “Cosmic Scrat-tosphere,” and then watching the movie that comes after it is a stark, vast contrast. While the short is very funny, it’s taut, spry, rapid, has a giddy, Adderall-like energy, and is based around slapstick, constant oneuppances of humorous conceits, and at times, some admittedly lame puns. The Peanuts Movie is loose, free, sophisticated, and interspersed with the slapstick, is a real cerebral wit. It not only makes you realize how special it is from other children movie fare, but it also makes you realize how much the Peanuts ouevre is a entity, a brand all its own. How many other kid’s movies can find suspense and tension and captivation in the fate of a book report, for God’s sake? It reminds the viewer how Schulz’s unique vision has continuously set itself apart from other children’s media since its humble beginnings as a comic strip.

The plot doesn’t sizzle and ooze with any real surprise, but that’s the form for you. In a nutshell, the film revolves around America’s most lovably downbeat, sullen, insecure child, Charlie Brown, as well as his fellow child companions. Charlie is saddled with disappoinments and prone to bad luck. He wants to be something, but how can he when even his damn kite won’t cooperate with him. His interest in being a better, more confident, more successful version of himself is heightened when the Little Red-Haired Girl enters his life and the remainder of the film is Charlie Brown trying to regain her attention, as well as her admiration, all the while dealing with the idiosyncrasies and escpades of his friends and especially his dog, Snoopy.

In an era where CGI is often seen as poison for adaptations of popular, beloved source materials, it’s refreshing to see the Peanuts in their sketchy, minimal, yet utterly winsome style. What Blue Sky Studios has done that is utterly captivating is preserve the style and framework of Schulz’s drawings, but adapted them to a new incarnation. They don’t change anything, except the technological method of executing it all. It’s a massive risk, as it could have easily appeared stiff and lifeless, but the animators and especially director Steve Marino, a man well-experienced in the Blue Sky Studios community (Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age 4), do a perfect job, bringing to life the best animation I have ever seen in a Blue Sky Studios film.

However, that wouldn’t have meant anything if these elements prevalent in the Peanuts works was missing: the charm, the intellect, and the accessible maturity. Thankfully, all of these are firmly intact, present, and accounted for, thanks to screenwriters Cornelius Uliano and the son and grandson of Charles M. Schulz. Anybody could have the offspring of the creator of the original material work on an adaption, but it takes a real insight, a profound knowledge and sixth sense of the core of the material, to make it fully special. Bryan and Steve Schulz possess it and what we get is a pure, warm, good-hearted, breezy romp.

Why it works is because it doesn’t pander nor talk down to kids. It displays the intelligence of children in a way that isn’t cosmic or overly precocious. Instead of overblowing intelligence of kids, it merely punctuates it and makes it identifiable. Very few children’s movies hit that sweet spot of staying sincere and consistent with itself and its content that it can simultaneously appeal to both children and adults without breaking a sweat. It helps that we have had decades and generations of preparation, but this film works by itself, in addition to being a wonderful passion project of the Peanuts and an introductory piece of the Peanuts. The characters’ quirks are already funny on their own merit and they are just as funny when you are familiar with them from past experience. And while certain homages and callbacks to original Peanuts projects are funnier when one has been familiarized with the work, they still work on the level that kids can laugh, as well. As stated before, there is some pervasive physical humor, but it is meticulously crafted, rather than being tight and frenetic.

Nothing is accentuated more than past Peanuts material. It’s more of an continuation of the work that picks up practically where it left off (although, I maybe shouldn’t say that until I see I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown). It’s kept even and simple. The voice actors do a good job with their roles. None of them are standouts per se, but they all possess the right timing, tone, and charisma for their characters. It’s children playing children, so...brava! It’s exciting to see Bill Melendez reprise his role as Snoopy and Woodstock via archival audio and Kristin Chenowth (puzzling casting choice) plays Fifi, Snoopy’s love interest in his fantasies as a WWI flying ace. The score is also left untouched, sticking to basic compositions and the familiar riffs and tunes we are all familiar with. And it is just as magical now as it was then. Hell, it begins with Schroder playing the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare. If that isn’t mind-blowingly awesome, I don't know what is.

Now, as much as I praise the film, it’s nothing spectacular. Because the Peanuts’ humor and format is so simple, it gets a little repetitive and one-note by the third act. It’s still adorable and enjoyable, but not as strong as the first two-thirds, which is different from past Peanuts movies like, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Snoopy Come Home. They are entertaining whilst staying subtle and easygoing throughout, but on a level where no one part of the film is better than the other. This cinematic adaptation has slightly more energy than those two films, but because it is so bare-bones in theory and execution, it makes it start to taper at times. Plus, some of the homages do feel a little forced and a scene where Charlie Brown does the chicken dance is painfully pandering. Also, while I love the score, any other music tacked on is as generic and bland as you can get. I mean, I love Meghan Trainor, but I could live without hearing, “Better When I’m Dancing” ever again.

Adaptations or re-tellings of anything arrive in full force year after year, but it seems that this year, we are getting a little more range with them. Whether it is watching Joseph Gordon-Levitt suspensefully tightrope on the Twin Towers, revealing of the revelance of NWA, bringing Shaun the Sheep to the masses, having pirates groove to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (dear God), ending the Alvin and the Chipmunks franchise (one can only hope), or with this movie, it seems as if this year, the adaptations, re-tellings, and even biopics and sequels ostensibly have a desire to at least try and be different, more invigorating than just standard, gargatuan blockbusters, for better or for worse. I’m not saying there are plunging into extreme, superior intellectual revelations or discoveries, but there’s a quality that again, for better or for worse, seems to set this year apart from others. And this movie probably has the heaviest, most delicate responsibility and ambition of them all, this side of Star Wars. Yet, what we see is something that seems so effortless. Maybe because it’s hard to screw up a Peanuts movie, unless you both leave what isn’t broken and change what won’t hurt. This movie manages this task, thus being the best Blue Sky Studios film I’ve seen. Keep in mind, that’s not saying much for Blue Sky Studios, but it’s still complimentary. It’s a nice film. Very nice.

RATING: A high three out of four stars!

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