Friday, January 15, 2016

The Peanuts Movie (Steve Martino)


First you have that scribbled line of ink on paper--halfway between a fluid streak and a crabbed scrawl. It's an expressive line, able to describe a round head's frustrated brow or a small beagle's literary ambitions ("It was a dark and stormy night"), able to suggest a child's despair over a grounded kite or a flying ace's ongoing Walter Mitty-style battle with the Red Baron. 

Charles M. Schulz's graphic line, done with an Eastbrook 914 radio pen, managed to exploit its limitations to evoke a boy's titanic struggles with life, a fourlegged dreamer's titanic struggles with imagination. Peanuts was the most minimalist of comic strips--basically four panels, a few characters, some dialogue balloons, a punchline--that nevertheless sketched a moody, strangely melancholic world all its own.

The 'bigger on the inside' quality of the strip didn't quite translate to the small screen when making its video debut, the less-than-30-minute A Charlie Brown Christmas produced by Lee Mendelson and directed by Bill Melendez (with low-key jazzy ambiance provided by Vince Guaraldi). More solemn than sad, Schulz's message of austerity (the true meaning of Christmas) nevertheless conspired with the show's no-budget look to create what seemed like that rarity of rarities: a Yuletide entertainment whose sincerity was the entirety of its style. Critics and audiences were charmed; the show was a hit. 

The movie adaptation A Boy Named Charlie Brown represented an even bigger challenge; the television set's modest dimensions seemed better suited to the strip's modest scale (the strip also did well in musical theater)--won't the bigger screen make the movie seem, well, empty? But Melendez and Mendelson put their faith in the truth of Schulz's dialogue and the tone of Guaraldi's piano score, at one point throwing large watercolor backgrounds of deserted streets and lonely urban skylines on the screen with Schulz's characters looking lost somewhere down below (as with the strip the movie turns its limitations into an advantage). 

Snoopy Come Home alas lacks Guaraldi's casually tinkling score, is afflicted with less-than-fresh gags (the 'hallway full of doors' routine, for example, straight out of Scooby Doo) and a tearjerker storyline. But sometimes--not always but sometimes--the movie manages to suggest the full pathos and despair of the strip with the simplest of images ('NO DOGS ALLOWED'). Of all the animated Peanuts productions video or big screen, this is my favorite. 

Steve Martino's The Peanuts Movie with input from son and grandson Craig and Brian Schulz attempts to resurrect that delicate sensibility for a modern audience, foregoing the no-budget look for more modern 3D animation. It's a serious problem--how to appeal to younger audiences while trying to draw its aging core market?--that inspires a fairly clever solution: 3D mannequins with Schulz's inimitable scrawl scribbled all over, describing eyes, ears, expressions (I'm thinking of how Isao Takahata treated digital animation in My Neighbors the Yamadas--as a welcome but closely watched party guest, allowed to add the occasional illusion of depth-of-field, but mostly assigned to sit in one corner, with strict orders to behave). Most of the eyepopping production value is poured into Snoopy's air-battle fantasies, with zooming panoramic views of the French landscape.

But the four-panel vignettes are still there: the failed attempts at kite-flying (in winter?), the psychiatric sessions (at a nickel a pop), the attempts at achieving popularity, or at least earning better treatment from other kids. Tying it all together (not that that's essential, only that the filmmakers felt it essential) is Charlie Brown's (Noah Schnapp) quest to win the attention of The Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Angelucci Capaldi)

All fairly elaborate, going against the grain of the original strip. But think of it this way: where Melendez and Mendelson asked you to look beyond the paucity of their Saturday-morning animation and barebones production values at the movie's essence--story and character and a sense of life's fragility, from an adult's waistline level--Martino presumably is asking you to look beyond the sleek digitized package (carefully scruffed to look more handmade) at his film's essence; if--and this is a big if--you can, then the movie isn't bad. At times Martino lifts the camera up high and you have a diorama view of a park or frozen lake with the entire Peanuts gang going at their random bits of business in all their color and detail, and you can't help but be charmed: it's like one of those tabletop model train sets complete with nearby village that you find in the small town toy store or diner, a Mandelbrotian distillation of the (somewhat) larger world outside.* 

That is, until the end (skip the rest of the paragraph if you plan to see the movie!) when The Little Red-Haired Girl turns to face Charlie Brown (random thought: why does everyone except Peppermint Patty address our hero by his full name? Is it because we are familiar with him and perhaps even love him but never feel he's our equal, are never really willing to have him for a friend?) and explains to him the significance of his yearlong quest to impress her. Here we are, at the end of a feature-length adaptation of a four-panel strip aimed at adults but not unfriendly to children, and we're being instructed as if we had a learning disability. It's frankly disenchanting if not a little insulting, and does serious damage to the appeal of what should have been a nice little animated mood piece, a modest slice of adult-viewed childhood. Too bad. 

*Is it the best animated film of the year? That honor in my book belongs to the ambivalently received though in my book emotionally fine When Marnie Was There, Studio Ghibli's apparent last animated feature film. Wouldn't even call it best American animated feature--in my book that would be The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water).

First published in Businessworld, 1.8.16

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