“The Peanuts Movie by Schulz” reads the title card of the new animated feature based on the beloved comic strip — and it feels like there’s a bit of a dare there. On one hand, the creators could argue that it’s literally correct, in that two of the three credited screenwriters are Craig Schulz and Bryan Schulz, the son and grandson of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. But the implication is that this is a feature to which the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and Linus would give a nod of approval. “This isn’t just a crass capitalization on a familiar brand,” those two additional words tell us. “Sure, it’s 3D CGI animation instead of hand-drawn. But trust us.”
And in a sense, it’s clear from the start that director Steve Martino (Ice Age: Continental Drift) isn’t interested in shaking up the Peanuts universe too radically. These kids still occupy an adult-free world, one where Snoopy still writes novels on a manual typewriter, people still call one another on rotary phones, and children still go outside to play on a snow day. The characters aren’t just frozen at the same grade-school age; they’re frozen in 1965.
That means Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) is still hapless and anxiety-ridden, and it’s from that foundation that the story emerges. The Little Red-Haired Girl has just moved to town, and Charlie Brown is simultaneously desperate to impress her, and terrified of actually interacting with her. So he embarks on a series of likely-doomed endeavors to prove his worth: entering the school talent show, learning to dance so he can dazzle at a school event, binge-reading War and Peace so he can write the most erudite book report in third-grade history.
Martino and his Schulz-led writing team bounce deftly among episodic misadventures, looking for a tone more in keeping with the gentle adventure of previous big-screen Peanuts movies like Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!) than with the classic holiday TV specials. That means more time for Snoopy’s fantasy confrontations, flying his doghouse into air battles (dogfights; get it?) with the Red Baron — trying to rescue poodle pilot Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth) — and a few more extended bumbling chase/action sequences. It may be weird to see Charlie Brown’s squiggly forelock rendered in 3D animation, but it does feel like The Peanuts Movie embraces the more relaxed pacing of family films from an era before everything had to be frantic, loud and madcap.
It does seem a bit frustrating, then, that The Peanuts Movie spends as much time as it does on its nudging bits of fan service. It’s one thing to honor the creative team that brought previous Peanuts adventures to life by having The Little Red-Haired Girl’s family arrive via “Mendelson & Melendez Moving,” or use Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy piano themes and the late Bill Melendez’s voice for Snoopy and Woodstock. But there’s no real point to an almost word-for-word repeat of Lucy’s (Hadley Belle Miller) reaction to being licked by Snoopy, or showing the kids dancing the same familiar iconic steps — Shermy’s shrug-shuffle, Frieda’s giddy swing — from A Charlie Brown Christmas. This isn’t a movie that begs for the kind of self-awareness that shows Charlie Brown picking out clothes from a closet filled with nothing but yellow shirts with black zig-zags.
Instead, it’s a movie that really does honor Schulz’s idea that children have complex interior lives, and his respect for integrity. Charlie Brown may forever be getting knocked over on the mound by every pitch he throws, or tangled up in the Kite-Eating Tree, but as he says at one point, “Charlie Brown is not a quitter.” The plot, loose though it may be, keeps a focus on the notion of Charlie finding himself in his embarrassing situations because of everything that’s good and decent about him. He’s the counterpoint to Lucy’s aggressive narcissism, a demonstration of Schulz’s idea that Charlie Brown wasn’t just a character, but that he had character. While The Peanuts Movie succeeds at being amusing and engaging for all ages, it’s perhaps just as important that it also succeeds at being “by Schulz.”