The Peanuts Movie is Nostalgia Fodder at Its Most Faithful and Forgettable

By  · Published on November 9th, 2015


Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I think every trailer that played before The Peanuts Movie had one instance of farting. One of the trailers featured a character pooping himself out of fright. By the time the featured attraction arrived, following a new Ice Age short starring Wile E. Squirrel (or whatever his name is), I was ready for something old-fashioned and wholesome. The new animated movie based on the classic comic strip by Charles M. Schulz and starring Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang is definitely that, but unfortunately in a way that’s old hat and wholly unimaginative.

This isn’t just the reaction of a middle-aged critic bored by a rehash of familiar plots. My three-year-old son, who excitedly arrived at the cinema with his plush Snoopy in arms, was also unimpressed. “Is it over now?” he asked at least five times over the course of its 90 minutes. “This movie is long!” he eventually exclaimed. And this reaction was not just a matter of the movie’s length. Nor his age. His attention span is remarkable. Months ago, he sat through Inside Out continually engaged and delighted. Then he came out eager to tell his mother all about it. This time he wasn’t at all interested in talking about what he’d just seen.

He and I were disappointed for different reasons. For him, I think there just wasn’t enough – as in it wasn’t all about – Snoopy. For me, it’s an issue of my nostalgia being mined for something that does nothing new with the property. The plot of the movie, which assumes we know all the characters already, focuses on Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl, who has just moved to town, and his unsuccessful attempts to impress her, academically and through various talents, while being too shy to just approach her. There’s also a subplot with Snoopy fantasizing about being his World War I Flying Ace persona, battling the Red Baron in order to rescue his own love interest, Fifi.

It’s all a mismatch of running story lines from the strip and past animated specials and movies based on them. As far as its being an adaptation of those things, it’s fine. Mostly literal and redundant, but fine. There’s a lot of obligatory scenes to appease the grown-up fans, such as those with Lucy and the football, Lucy’s psychiatry stand, Lucy being kissed by Snoopy, Lucy pining after Schroeder – I never realized how much more significant Lucy was than everyone other than Charlie Brown and Snoopy, actually. Yes, we also see all the kids dancing in their famous ways.

The Peanuts Movie , which is directed by Steve Martino (Ice Age: Continental Drift) and co-written by Schulz’s son and grandson (Craig and Bryan) with Cornelius Uliano and produced by them and Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks), is a new take on something old, and while it does make some updates they are far from the unfaithful. Little appears to have changed technologically or otherwise in the world of the “Peanuts” gang since they were created 65 years ago. They aren’t joined on screen by smartphones, computers and video games. There are indeed no fart jokes, and the slapstick remains as simplistic as Charlie Brown kicking air and falling on his back when the football is pulled away. Compared to the frenzy of the Ice Age short, it’s a very relaxed cartoon.

The characters are now vibrantly colored (packaged cotton candy like) and three-dimensionally rendered by a computer, yet there’s still a lot of two-dimensional elements to the animation, mostly in their faces, so they’re still totally recognizable. There are also a few moments where even more traditional black-and-white 2D sequences appear in thought balloons like flashbacks. And the soundtrack includes some innocently hip modern music by the likes of Meghan Trainor and Flo Rida, but also bits of the iconic Vince Guaraldi tunes we all know and love. It’s as tolerable evolution as were Schultz’s own tweaks to the looks of his characters over the years.

The thing about a comic strip adaptation is it probably should feel too familiar. Especially with a strip that lasted as long as “Peanuts” did, every day you get a piece of a narrative that’s been going on for decades. Easily picked up whether you’ve been following the whole time or you’re a brand new reader. It’s all recurring themes and situations, only slightly changed. It’s cozy with your morning coffee or cereal. But a movie shouldn’t just be that in motion. It is allowed to take us other places, the way the movies Snoopy, Come Home and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown do. Comparatively, The Peanuts Movie hardly seems like a screen story so much as a series of old sketches brought to life for a narrative track that’s inconsistently paced but at least fairly focused.

My son, at his age, doesn’t really need anything new at all, as in The Peanuts Movie is totally unnecessary for him. He can watch the old specials and movies without any idea that they’re old (his latest TV obsessions are animated series from the 1990s, thanks in part to Netflix). That’s why I’m constantly so confused with today’s nostalgia-driven culture, given that now more than ever we’re able to simply enjoy the original things we love at the click of a button and have no need for recycled and redundant versions of them, and new generations also don’t need their own takes because they can also just appreciate the earlier takes.

As for more specifically what my son didn’t like about the movie, it’s primarily content based. His main criticism is with how Snoopy wasn’t allowed to go to school. He also doesn’t like Pigpen because he’s dirty, he doesn’t like Lucy because she’s mean and he doesn’t even like Charlie Brown because he’s sad. He likes Snoopy but found his World War I scenes too loud. He likes Woodstock because he’s Snoopy’s friend. Once outside the theater, he immediately wanted to return to watching old Cat in the Hat cartoons. To gauge his ultimate disfavor, I asked him Monday morning if he was going to tell his friends at school about it, and he said no. So, there you have it: neither of us can recommend it to our own peer set.

The Upside: No fart jokes or anything else terribly offensive and modern. Faithful to its source material in a way that’s comfortable and doesn’t ruin your childhood.

The Downside: Nothing new as far as its needing to exist. Faithful to its source material in a way that’s redundant and dull. Not enough of the minor characters, especially Linus.

On the Side: Snoopy and Woodstock are once again voiced by Peanuts special and movie helmer Bill Melendez, despite the fact that he died back in 2008 – they’re recycled vocals.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.