Friday, January 15, 2016
It is very rare that I go out to see a real live movie in a real live movie theater. I cannot bear the strangers sitting beside me, and I dread anyone taller than 3'11" sitting in front of me because I was born with a minor birth defect that prevents me from seeing through peoples' skulls. Furthermore it is a small torture to me any of the unreasonable sounds my random movie neighbors are inclined to make, like breathing, or smiling. But I live mere blocks from a beautiful, old style, art decoish single screen theater on a grand scale, showing discount, almost ready to come out on DVD movies. So sometimes I am overcome with an impatience to see a movie and my wife and I go, despite the difficulties involved.
And that is how we found ourselves at a Saturday afternoon showing of The Peanuts Movie.
Curiously The Peanuts Movie was everything I heard the new Star Wars movie was; a piece of homage fan fiction, updated, but as much as possible in the spirit and tradition of the source material. And when I say source material I mean the heyday stuff. While Schulz did not savage and mismanage his own creation like George Lucas did his, there is no doubt that the latter years, focusing an awful lot on Snoopy's brother Spike, in the desert, with a cactus, did not have the richness of the strips that were consistently brilliant in the sixties and seventies.
But first, let me say that the filmmakers here did something very clever. They showed a new modern cartoon short film featuring some kind of not cute squirrel creature with an acorn, that was so restless, and humorless, and desperate, that every shred of peacefulness in the Peanuts feature, when it finally came, was double the relief. At least I think that was the filmmakers clever intention. I can't figure out any other reason for it.
And let me also say that I was surprised to find that people still go to the movies despite the fact that one can view the entire history of cinema at one's leisure in one's own home on a large, high resolution screen. There is something sort of sweet and old fashioned about that. The theater, which is a large one, was very full, and my wife and I were nearly the only ones there without kids. During the only weak parts of The Peanuts Movie (some extended sequences with Snoopy pursuing the Red Baron) I looked around the audience and found it bobbing like a mosh pit at a 1990 grunge concert.
So I kind of loved the movie. But it did have a few minor drawbacks as well. The Charlie Brown main story particularly spoke to me. All my life I have publicly been most like Snoopy. I have wished I was most like Linus or even Schroeder. But watching Charlie Brown this time, well, suddenly it all came clear: Charlie Brown, c'est moi!
What I loved:
1. A mostly low key core traditional story retelling (Charlie Brown and the little red haired girl) with all the traditional characters in their most traditional settings (school, home, skating rink, neighborhood, parks).
2. Uses many of the old gags, but usually in fresh, natural, plot relevant ways (Peppermint Patty sleeping in school, Linus philosophizing advice with Charlie Brown, Snoopy's writing ambitions, Lucy working as a horrible Psychiatrist).
3. Includes many updates, jokes, and mild modernizations that were in the spirit of the original. Charlie brown choosing a shirt is an excellent gag along these lines. Sally cashing in on her brother's celebrity was charming, modern, self referential, and consistent. The kids use old style phones with cords, but there was curbside recycling in the neighborhood.
4. The voice work seemed more naturalistic and true to life than the old shows and was the better for it.
What I liked:
1. Computer animation that still captured the feel and prettiness of The Peanuts, albeit with a small loss of expressionism. The small touches of hand drawing were a sweet homage to the source material as well.
The few smaller problems:
1. The red baron sequences go on too long, and are too action heavy in the direction of what ruins every Pixar movie (that is, a 40 minute chase sequence). Fortunately, in this movie it's probably only 5 or 10 minutes too much of this, but if they dared to slow the pace on this movie just a smidgen more it would have been much the better for it. Also, this series of Red Baron vignettes feature a poodle named Fifi (think Fonzie's girlfriend Pinky Tuscadero). Never an original comic strip character, Fifi made me wistful for Snoopy's pursuit of Marcie as a French barmaid and the interconnection of fantasy and neighborhood reality that it brought with it (we get a small reference to this at the end).
2. While the settings are pretty and Twin Cities-ish (important to me!), I think the neighborhood skews more towards an idyllic suburb than to a city neighborhood, losing some of the particular charm of the original strip's semi urban setting.
And that is my Peanuts Movie review. Best animated kid movie of 2015, that I saw, I mean, out of the two that I did see. Four out of five stars, but I'm giving it officially five stars because of grading inflation, in an unethical attempt to improve its Internet average up towards what I think it should be, and out of a slight fit of pique that it wasn't nominated for an academy award.