A couple of years ago, when BOOM!’s imprint for kids, KaBOOM!, announced they would be publishing a Peanuts comic book of new material, I vowed not to touch it with a fifty-foot kite string. Never mind if it was good or not; that wasn’t the point. I just had no more interest in reading Peanuts-not-by-Schulz than I did in reading Watchmen-not-by-Alan-Moore.
This wasn’t just because I assumed that a great creation carried on by someone other than its original creator was just not going to be the same. I also knew that Schulz did not want any more Peanuts strips created when he was gone. (The family agreed to the creation of the KaBOOM! series by splitting hairs: Sparky wanted no one to make further Peanuts STRIPS, but nobody said anything about Peanuts COMIC BOOKS. Um, OK.)
So when The Peanuts Movie was released last year, my first impulse was to go no where near that, either. At first.
But when the idea arose to do a Deconstructing Comics episode on the Peanuts strip (Kumar and I had done a two-parter on David Michaelis’ biography Schulz and Peanuts in 2008, but not exactly about the strip itself), and I started looking up articles about Peanuts online for research, I found many articles occasioned by the release of the movie. News stories about it. Reviews. Ruminations on the strip that were occasioned by the movie.
Reading these articles raised my curiosity: How good a job had the Schulz family (writers Bryan Schulz and Craig Schulz, along with Sparky non-relative Cornelius Uliano) done in preserving the feel of the strip? Had they managed to walk that tightrope of making Peanuts relevant to a new generation (at this point you’d have to be more than 20 years old to remember a day when BRAND NEW Peanuts strips were appearing in newspapers) without making it too un-Peanuts-like for purists like me?
Had they kept the depressive feeling found especially in the first half of the strip’s 50-year run, the constant failure Charlie Brown experiences, and the abuse he receives from most of the other kids (whom Robert L Short, in The Gospel According to Peanuts, called “the comics counterpart to the kind of children found in William Golding’s terrifying tract of the time, Lord of the Flies”)?
So curiosity got the best of me. Today I did the deed. I saw The Peanuts Movie.
And I remain ambivalent.
To be sure, there are good things about it. Vintage Schulz gags re-presented, in part or in full. (“I can’t talk to that little red-haired girl because she’s something and I’m nothing. Now, if I were something and she were nothing,…”) The film is very careful not to show any technology that never appeared in a Peanuts strip (personal computers, cell phones, etc.), which gives it a bit of a timeless feel. Some of the vintage Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas music shows up to make it feel nice and Peanuts-y.
There are also a few nice Easter eggs: we see a Mendelson & Melendez Movers truck, referring to Lee Mendelson, producer of numerous Peanuts specials and movies, and Bill Melendez, who directed them. Also, Charlie Brown has a comic book featuring Sparkplug, the horse who inspired Schulz’s nickname.
There are some bows to modernity that just feel SO VERY WRONG to the purist, but were probably as necessary as the computer animation in making this movie relevant to today’s kids: a couple of very 2015-ish songs by Meghan Trainor, for example.
Yes, the Little Red Haired Girl appears in this movie, and has lines and everything. I know many Peanuts purists found this chief among the movie’s sins, since she never appeared in the strip except in silhouette in one ‘90s installment. But somehow her de-mystification didn’t bother me, perhaps mainly because she had already appeared in the 1977 TV special It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown, back when Schulz was still alive and kicking. So, big deal.
As for the all-important tone… Well, Charlie Brown of the movie does lose more than he wins, and one big apparent win turns out not to be. But I sensed that the writers and producers of this movie just couldn’t bring themselves to make it as gleefully dark as the strip often was.
The Peanuts kids here just feel a bit too friendly to each other. A bit too much of a community. (And they all seem to live in the same couple of blocks! Even Peppermint Patty and Marcie, who in the strip lived across town.) And since when does Snoopy ever help Charlie Brown with anything? Snoopy as written by Schulz was always pretty ambivalent about his master, and rarely cooperative, but Snoopy in this movie helps out Charlie Brown on multiple occasions, even providing moral support. Really?? … Alright, who’s that kid in the Snoopy costume?
Also, while the strip did have physical humor (Snoopy dragging Linus around by his blanket), some of the gags in “The Peanuts Movie” would be more at home in a Disney or Pixar film. On top of that, while the movie doesn’t exactly end with all Charlie Brown’s dreams coming true, it’s a much happier ending than we longtime Peanuts fans are used to seeing him experience.
I’ll admit to a creeping feeling that Charlie Brown has suffered enough, and it’s kind of nice to see him do (relatively) well. But did the sweeter scenes of the movie come about simply because of an inclination to give the bald kid a break? Was it due to an inability of the writers to measure up to Schulz? (Unlikely; they could just crib from the master some more if they couldn’t write enough “Good grief!” scenes themselves.) Or was it another bow to commercial realities, an impression that younger audiences wouldn’t embrace Peanuts if Charlie Brown never, ever won?
I suspect so, but consider this: were there a ton of dark strips like Peanuts running in ‘50s and ‘60s newspapers? Or in the TV or movies of the time? Was Peanuts following some bleak trend? Hardly. Any 20th century strips that aspired to such bleakness were seen to have been inspired by Peanuts. And we kids read Peanuts anyway, often without even grasping how bleak some of those comics really were. So is a sugar-coating of Peanuts any more necessary today?