Oh, Charlie Brown. Who hasn't related to his neurotic worries, flustered defeats and occasional hard-won victory?
I relate to him now, writing this review while recalling one particular scene from "The Peanuts Movie": Tasked with writing a book report, Charlie Brown faces that familiar childhood frustration of counting out his written words to see whether his assignment is long enough to turn in. While I no longer tick off pencil-scrawled words on paper, I'm right there with him because I have little more to say about this movie than it's cute and sweet. Its failing is that it's not much else.
Directed by Steve Martino ("Ice Age: Continental Drift"), "The Peanuts Movie" aims to bring Charlie Brown and his friends into the modern day, where they might win over a new generation of fans. To Martino's credit, he doesn't mess much with creator Charles M. Schulz's formula. None of the kids carry cellphones or have updated their wardrobes; they don't make pop-culture references. Adults still sound like garbled fast-food speakers, and Snoopy still fantasizes about adventures as a World War I fighter pilot. The only real change is the style of animation.
Blue Sky Studios previously brought audiences the "Ice Age" movies as well as the underrated "Horton Hears a Who" and the overrated "Rio." Now the studio presents the "Peanuts" gang, pulled out of their hand-drawn look and plumped up with three-dimensional CGI. Rather than go full-bodied, the characters maintain a semi-flat look that makes them resemble puffy stickers, their edges round, the front slightly convex, their back flat. Martino kept some literal marks from the funnies page. The familiar 2D approach is offered in a thought bubble/flashback of Charlie Brown's past failings (baseball pitching, football kicking, Christmas tree-picking), and hard black accent lines occasionally punctuate frantic character movement. It's a blend that's curious but easy to embrace. And it is a joy to see these spirited characters bustle about in a world so alive with warm, luscious color.
"Peanuts" devotees will be pleased over the film's dogged dedication to remain true to form. Poses are pulled straight from comic strips, and child actors were cast carefully to keep the voices as close as possible to those you grew up with, whenever that was. Distinctively eccentric dance moves are lovingly re-enacted, and characters spout signature catchphrases, from Sally's "My sweet Babboo!" to Charlie's "Good grief" to Lucy's scathing use of "blockhead." Like all the old TV specials, "The Peanuts Movie" is peppered with maxims that seem made for refrigerator magnets, like "A dog doesn't try to give advice or judge you; they just love you for who you are," or "It's the courage to continue that counts!"
Just as you'd expect from a "Peanuts" property, the film is cute, sweet and totally inoffensive. But if you're over the age of six, I suspect you'll be bored.
Instead of a rousing quest to find the perfect Christmas tree or prove the existence of the Great Pumpkin, "The Peanuts Movie" offers the thinnest thread of a plot: Charlie Brown wants to impress the Little Red-Haired Girl. A mystique-shrouded crush who's never spoken or even shown her face in past "Peanuts" offerings, here she does both. You might think this would make her less untouchable to the movie's skittish hero. Maybe Charlie Brown might just talk to her instead of concocting elaborate plans that involve talent shows, school dances, Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and a school assembly. But then there would be no movie and no drawn-out finale in which the Little Red-Haired Girl spells out the film's message to the audience, whom the producers assume is young enough to need such explicit explanation.
To stretch out the running time to a respectable 93 minutes, "The Peanuts Movie" lazily laces in a subplot of Snoopy writing an epic about his imagined enemy the Red Baron and his literal dream girl (or dog) Fifi. Bedecked in his aviator's hat and bright red scarf, Snoopy soars through the skies on his little red dog house, offering the only parts of the film that feel remotely cinematic, even with the added oomph of 3D glasses. Still, these scenes of flying through clouds and dodging dangerous enemies are nowhere near as exhilarating as similar sequences in the "How to Train Your Dragon" franchise. So, I can't think of a single reason to pay to see "The Peanuts Movie" in theaters.
"The Peanuts Movie" is a very nice movie about lovable kids that will likely please die-hard "Peanuts" fans and very young children. However, there's not enough here in story or spectacle to justify the high price of taking your family to the theater. I'd say you lose nothing by just waiting until its inevitable TV broadcast next fall.
"The Peanuts Movie" opens Friday nationwide.