Purists will likely balk at the revisions made to Charles Schulz’s characters in “The Peanuts Movie” — specifically, the fact that Charlie Brown’s air of existential insecurity and anxiety has been replaced with a far more palatable, kid-friendly brand of self-doubt. That Steve Martino’s film also wastes considerable time on imaginary aerial dogfights (har har) between Snoopy and his fictional nemesis The Red Baron — skirmishes staged like those found in any number of modern blockbusters — simply makes it more difficult to ignore how this contemporary big-screen outing for Schulz’s iconic adolescents reconfigures its source material’s tone. Brighter, cheerier, and bouncier than the comic strips and TV specials that made them household names, Charlie and company’s animated adventure (from “Ice Age” producers Blue Sky Studios) is something of a betrayal, to be sure. Which doesn’t, however, prevent it from also being a likably frothy, upbeat diversion with charm to spare.
As with Schulz’s holiday television programs, “The Peanuts Movie” suffers by focusing so heavily on Snoopy (voiced by the late Bill Melendez, via archival recordings), a white-and-black beagle whose dancing, prancing mischievousness remains a show-stopping dead end. Snoopy (and Woodstock, also courtesy of Melendez) is like the supporting character who won’t quit mugging for the camera in a desperate bid to get the spotlight shifted his way, and Martino’s film indulges the dog’s hunger for attention by repeatedly halting the action to watch the pooch pound away at the typewriter, ride his doghouse in airborne combat, and squawk and guffaw at the exploits of his owner, Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp). Snoopy’s adorableness is never egregiously aggravating, but given how frequently the material pauses what it’s doing in order to make sure the dog has being given adequate doting consideration, his persistent presence turns out to be a minor annoyance.
Nonetheless, in his fanciful quest to save his beloved Fifi from the Red Baron, Snoopy’s running subplot at least dovetails with the plight of Charlie Brown, here faithfully imagined as a round mound of neurosis who still can’t fly a kite or keep from pratfalling his way into embarrassing failure. Like his body during one of his trademark flights into the air following a missed football kick, Charlie’s emotions are thrown for a loop by the arrival of The Little Red-Haired Girl, over whom he immediately falls head over heels. With nervousness and self-doubt serving as the obstacles in Charlie’s path to friendship (or more) with this young girl, the primary story of “The Peanuts Movie” — as it were — soon concerns the various ways in which Charlie attempts to overcome uncertainty and become a better, more confident version of himself.
This process involves talking to crabby Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller) at her 5-cent psychiatrist booth, taking dance lessons from Snoopy, and writing a lengthy book report on his and The Little Red-Haired Girl’s behalf (they’re classroom partners) on Leo Tolstoy’s so-enormous-he-has-to-sled-it-home-from-the-library “War and Peace.” “The Peanuts Movie” is structured as a series of brief comedic vignettes tethered together by a thin Charlie-is-love-struck narrative thread. This leaves it feeling at once slight and yet fast and fizzy enough to avoid getting bogged down in over-plotting, and its stream of shout-outs to the series’ most famous gags, incidents and episodes (including the “Great Pumpkin” and Christmas specials), as well as the clearly delineated characterizations of Charlie’s many friends (Linus, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Schroeder, Pigpen, etc.), further cements the film as a lightweight, if respectful and intermittently funny, love letter to Schulz’s creations.
Disappointingly, “The Peanuts Movie” waters down the more adult, gloomy elements of Schulz’s original works in order to better appeal to its target audience. The trade-off for that tonal modulation, however, is colorful, lively CGI that blends flat and round animations to suggest a comic strip come to vibrant life. Making a seamless transition to the land of three dimensions, Charlie and company are so attractively conceived that Martino’s aesthetics almost singlehandedly justify the entire endeavor’s existence. Replete with moments in which Charlie’s reveries are rendered in the 2D line-drawing design of his prior TV ventures, the film proves — in both style and attitude — a successful bridge between the old and the new, and one that, no matter its emotional slimness, ultimately never loses sight of the fretful angst with which all kids must, at some point, contend. [B]