Beloved, neurotic cartoon kid Charlie Brown hits the biggest screen possible (and in 3-D) in the The Peanuts Movie, directed by animation vet Steve Martino. The warm film pays its utmost respect to artist Charles Schulz, who carefully created a world inhabited only by children, where their dilemmas are treated with high-stakes drama. It meets children on their own terms, but never dumbs it down, exploring their complex emotions.
The Peanuts Movie cobbles together the main themes of the comic strip to create its story. Charlie (voiced by Noah Schnapp), hapless but persistent, just can't seem to get anything right. When The Little Red-Haired Girl shows up at school, Charlie develops an instant crush on her, and starts cooking up plans to impress her. Paralyzed by nervousness, all of his schemes end in his humiliation. But Charlie, ever the model of perseverance, never gives up.
Pup Snoopy has got the swagger and style Charlie lacks, serving as his foil and alter ego, as well as his most ardent tormentor and cheerleader. Snoopy's Red Baron fan fiction, in which he plays the Flying Ace, a WWI-era fighter pilot, acts as a structuring device and metaphorical counterpart. The flying sequences liberate the film from the diminutive Charlie Brown world. However, they grow tiresome toward the end, when it becomes clear that these diversions are also being used to pad out the feature-film running time, which isn't quite covered by the scanty Charlie Brown story.
The simple graphic design that is the hallmark of the Peanuts comic fits in well with the 3-D, and the animators seamlessly bring the newsprint line drawings to colorful and creative life. Yet the integrity and feel of the original comic strip is carefully maintained.
The Peanuts Movie is extremely faithful to the original source material, which will please longtime fans, but this is aimed at bringing in a new, youthful audience. The comic's origin is acknowledged with thought and speech bubbles rendered in black and white drawings. There's a homespun charm, with hand drawn hearts exploding over Lucy's head when she spots Linus, or the crayon scrawl that colors Charlie's cheeks a bright red in embarrassment.
The world of Charlie Brown preserves a 20th century ideal of childhood that's blessedly analog, with kids flying kites, playing outside and doing book reports scrawled in pencil. It captures a childhood that doesn't quite exist anymore. But it was ahead of it's time in diversity and inclusion, though the film retains the emphasis on heterosexual crushes and "pretty" as a marker of worth. This rather antiquated idea is subverted by the contemporary lessons brought to the film.
While Charlie Brown is the definition of an insecure worrywart, the feature film not only redeems him in his failures, but rewards the way he reacts to disappointments and challenges. Time and again, Charlie feels like he messes everything up, but these obstacles offer him opportunities to demonstrate his strength of character — his compassion, honesty and bravery. It's OK to fail, and everything will work out, as long as you get back up. Everyone feels like Charlie does sometimes, but the optimism in his persistence is at the core of why Peanuts stands the test of time.