Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Peanuts Movie Assessment

From left to right: Beethoven, Blockhead, Good Grief and Security Blanket.
Right now the general attitude towards this movie seems to be mostly positive — everyone seems to think that this is, at worst, a bland, inoffensive, faithful adaptation of the original strips.*

However, to me, watching “The Peanuts Movie” was like watching a can of peanuts being dumped on a child’s head in a forest — soon enough, the nits came swarming in, and I can’t help but want to pick them off.**

I don’t like to repeat things other people have said, so I won’t be talking much about the intrusive Snoopy subplot or how thin Fifi was as a character, (it was intrusive, she was thin).

And as usual, spoiler alert.

Cue the complaining!

~ S T O R Y ~

The opening to this movie, that is, the first minute, I thought, was particularly effective. Something about quiet titles always works. It’s like “Why didn’t you do more with these?” but also, “It’s so simple, I can’t complain about it.” It just “gets” me.

Around five minutes after the title, after the characters have done their annual Nostalgic Callback Ice-skating Thing, (which, incidentally, is when I first started to get irritated by the animation in this movie), in lumbers the Main Plot. I already knew the gist of it going in, but I was still surprised by how shamelessly the plot copies the special “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown”, as well as the original arc from the comics. It isn’t a complete rehash by any means, but it does seem outdated in this day and age. I didn’t write off the movie just yet, however. Peanuts is a very introspective property, so maybe the people behind the film had something new to say about typical romance plots, (uncharacteristically optimistic of me, I know).

You're Predictably Attracted to This Unobtainable Ideal, Charlie Brown!
Unfortunately, while I like Charlie Brown enough to somewhat care about his relationship woes, this movie really pushed it. Charlie Brown’s entire drive through this film is to be with the Little Red-Haired Girl, which gives everything an uncomfortable tone. While watching this movie, something felt really off — this was that something. All other dimensions to “Charlie Brown” were diminished or overshadowed or outright removed by this new motivation, and it turned things that were innocent and kind of sweet like him holding on to to her pencil into outright weird obsessive behavior.

All of this isn’t helped by the movie’s fixation on out-of-place dance tracks. A rave party is shoehorned into the proceedings because apparently the only way Charlie Brown will get the Little Red-Haired Girl to notice him at social junctions is by twerking and shuffling.

You're Embarrassing, Charlie Brown!

Speaking of twerking and shuffling, the dance scene highlights a weird incongruity with the film: a desire to be “modern” and “hip” that’s suppressed by the usual melancholic tone of the Peanuts property. Or is it vice versa? I would’ve been much happier with the melancholy, which seems like an oxymoronic statement, but in fact isn’t. The pinnacle of the incongruity was the end credits, where another gimcrack dance number slapped me across the face with its penguin in a desert absurdity.***

Well, maybe I shouldn’t have said “pinnacle of the incongruity”, not just because it’s pretentious, but also because the most incongruous moment was easily the ending. Let me ask you what the most prevailing element in Charlie Brown’s character is… what is the dominant aspect…? I think it’s safe to say it’s that he’s a LOSER — a lovable loser, but still consistently a loser — and for some reason this movie wants to make him a “winner”. At first, when Charlie Brown first started “winning”, I thought it had to be some sort of contrived dream sequence. It’s so completely wrong that I can’t even put the phrases “Charlie Brown” and “winning” in the same sentence without putting “winning” in quotation marks!

We Jumped The Shark, Charlie Brown!
When I walked into this movie, I would’ve never guessed that the final shot would be Charlie Brown crowdsurfing on his classmates as they gave him a resounding “hurray”, but if I had guessed, then I would’ve probably thought, “schlocktastic” as I entered the theater, rather than when I left it, which is when I ended up thinking it.***

This is where I’d normally put a "~ C H A R A C T E R S ~" section, but the only important characters in this movie are Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Spending so much time with both of them and their mirroring one-track plot-lines gave the film it’s regrettable monotone. However, I will add that Peppermint Patty remained her usual fantastic self, as did Marcie.

I think the biggest reason I’m more irritated by this film than other people is the message: be yourself. We’ve all heard it before, how many times are they going to tell us? What is “self” anyway? Is there a way to act that is anything other than yourself? Everything you do comes from your own impulses and thoughts, right? If I was not being myself, and started acting like “myself”, wouldn’t that mean I was acting differently than the self I was already acting as, making the entire thing redundant? I hate this moral. It bypasses everything interesting about Peanuts. Oh well. What was I expecting, getting my hopes up like that? It seems I always set myself up for disappointment.

Pretty much sums it up.

~ T H E  H U M O R ~

The humor in this movie had a tendency to drag it down, and the talent show sequence, I think, was the sequence that suffered the most from it. Charlie Brown sacrifices looking cool in front of the Little Red-Haired Girl to save his sister Sally. That works, mostly. The problem is the “payoff” of the scene, which basically degrades to a bunch of kids screaming and running around. Then, out of nowhere, Lucy starts hitting on Schroeder, which seems incredibly out of place in the midst of all the ensuing chaos. Oh, what “kooky” shenanigans!!

Why Aren't You Laughing, Charlie Brown?

Standing in stark contrast to the unfunny talent show scene, the “War and Peace” book fetching sequence was surprisingly interesting and funny, (well, it wasn’t a total train wreck, anyway). Maybe I have a book-loving bias, but for some reason, even though the scene had the exact same payoff as the last scene, (chaos ensues), it was much more satisfying. The jokes landed, and the delivery was just all-around better. Which was weird, because the last thing you’d expect to be funny in a Peanuts movie is an action sequence. I guess it speaks to how action and movement-oriented Blue Sky is as an animation studio, (I’ll cover that later in the animation section).

Overall, this film is not very funny, aside from a few good jokes. The physical comedy severely overshadows the verbal humor, to the point where I was wondering if the filmmakers thought children would get bored if something didn’t fall on Charlie Brown’s head every five minutes, (now there’s a good drinking game). This is not a film that took risks. I’m not saying I wanted it to be a bunch of cutaway gags and sardonic wisecracks. I think the riskiest thing they could’ve done would’ve been to trust the tone of the source material to keep people’s attention, and the fact that they didn’t speaks to how misaligned the tone actually was.

~ T H E  A N I M A T I O N ~

Why Do Your Thoughts Look Like That, Charlie Brown?
Blue Sky, famous for it’s lowbrow Ice Age “comedies”, usually relies on hyperactive mugging and spastic motion for laughs, and so, I think, misjudged how conspicuous those elements are in a film with a low-key mood like this one needed.

Watching the characters move was like watching someone trying to hide a heart attack. Everyone was bouncing up and down with weird, constrained energy, and the movement segued from jittery frame-by-frame imitation to CGI smooth, an artistic choice that seemed, like everything in this movie, "off". Why not just draw it in 2D? Is it because all animated films have to be CGI now?

I will say that while I don’t enjoy the Ice Age films, the Scrat short at the beginning of the movie was actually pretty funny, with a Looney Tunes sensibility that must’ve been a respite for the poor animators who were essentially asked to animate only the most boring, economical movements for the characters in the main feature.

I ended up being mostly neutral on the style of the movie, but I can see how annoying it could potentially be. The faces of the characters are flat 2D drawn over the 3D bodies, which looks really weird. Yes, they look like the characters. But it’s still remarkably distracting.

~ T H E  M U S I C ~

This, my final whiny complaint about a movie that took more effort and money than I’ve made in my entire life, is about the score. This is an odd one because it seems really easy. Jazzy piano is a recurring theme through every Peanuts special, so they could’ve easily hired a few prominent jazz musicians to improvise over the movie. It’d be unique, it’d be awesome, it’d be Peanuts.
However, instead of that, Christophe Beck wheeled out that old theme again, (it’s in every Peanuts special. And playing in every store at Christmas time. If you must do it, do it in the credits where nobody’s paying attention), but can you blame him? No, I’m more irritated for the Orchestral Score #90 nature of the original tracks. In fact, doesn’t THIS:

Sound a bit like THIS?

Jump to somewhere around the 0:48 mark on both videos for the particular motifs I’m picking up. Anyway, if your score reminds me of Regal Cinemas’s Pre-Show Roller Coaster, you’re probably playing it safe.

Well, there it is, my mostly negative thoughts about The Peanuts Movie. I will say that occasionally, something good shines through the bad, enough that I’m motivated to encourage you to see for yourself whether it hits the mark or not.

I think that, if kids don’t like this movie, it won’t be because it wasn’t bouncy or silly enough, it will be because it failed to deliver the Peanuts’ most endearing quality — the rejection of childhood.

Hey — at least it has a decent character creator!

*Do I need citations for this? Just look at Rotten Tomatoes.

** Horrible, clumsy metaphor. Sorry. I can’t help making these awful metaphors for some reason — they’re like a virus, constantly infecting me, and I’m allergic to the vaccine.

*** I sincerely apologize for this grandiloquent sentence.