In approaching the task of bringing Charles M. Schulz’s classic Peanuts to the big screen, screenwriters Bryan Schulz (Charles’s son), Craig Schulz (Charles’s grandson), and Cornelius Uliano have seemingly cherry-picked some of the more famous moments from the comic strip and the television specials in order to create something of a greatest-hits package. From Charlie’s infatuation with the Little Red-Haired Girl to Snoopy’s imaginary life as a crack World War I flying ace battling the Red Baron, the storylines closest to the hearts of the comic’s fans have been rendered in a style in tune with current trends in children’s animation.
A 3D love letter to Peanuts, with a bent toward slapstick and a soundtrack including bland pop ditties by the likes of Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida, is a cause for worry. But director Steve Martino has essentially remained true to Schulz’s sensibility, specifically the animator’s whimsical child’s-eye view of the world and how it’s often complicated by real-world disappointment.
The Peanuts Movie revolves around Charlie Brown’s attempts to get the Little Red-Haired Girl’s attention by projecting an image of success antithetical to his mopey conception of himself, and his attempts invariably fail. He perfects a magic trick for the school talent show, but never gets to perform it. He then learns some dance moves to perform at a school dance only to see his quest for a trophy thwarted by spilled punch. And after being paired with the Little Red-Haired Girl for a book report while she’s out of town, he takes it upon himself to read all of War and Peace and write the report in one weekend—only to eventually see the report shredded by a model airplane.
Perhaps Charlie Brown’s biggest indignity, though, arises in a lengthy episode in which he suddenly becomes a local celebrity after achieving a perfect score on a recent test—a score that, he eventually discovers, turns out to be someone else’s, the mix-up the result of his accidentally putting his name on the wrong exam in a mad rush to turn it in. Failure, thus, hovers over The Peanuts Movie as much as it did in Schulz’s comic strip, infusing even its most ebullient set pieces and designs with a sense of melancholy.
But Schulz was no pessimist. As aware as he was of the looming specter of darkness around every corner, he refused to allow that bleakness to override a sense of curiosity at the possibilities of an adult world just beyond the grasp of these children. Perhaps that explains the timeless appeal of Charlie Brown, a hapless character who nevertheless refuses to be bowed by his setbacks, soldiering on in the face of his essential mediocrity.
The most noteworthy way Martino shows his understanding of Schulz’s compassionate yet tough-minded worldview, then, lies in his decision not to end the story in a blaze of affirmation, but to include a stinger scene in the end credits that emotionally complicates that triumph. Charlie Brown may well learn the value of being true to his good-hearted self, but that hardly means the rest of the world will cut him any breaks. Still, that doesn’t mean the small triumphs he experiences aren’t worth celebrating.