Thursday, December 24, 2015

Brown Is The New Black

Year: 2015
Director: Steve Martino
Cast: Noah Schnapp, Bill Melendez, Hadley Belle Miller
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

To put it bluntly, I can’t stand the comic strip Peanuts. Its nostalgic monotony and saccharine anti-humor are the Kryptonite to my Iron Man. It’s not even in the same universe as my sense of humor. Needless to say, I did not seek out this year’s The Peanuts Movie. Alas, it found me, thanks to a relationship of some 2 ½ years that I find a regrettable necessity to maintain. You can imagine my surprise when the film ended up being not quite so bad as all that.

You’re welcome. You can put down the torches and pitchforks. We wouldn’t want you straining your arms.

The Peanuts Movie tells the story of one Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp). You may have heard of him. He lives in Anytown, USA with his sister Sally (Mariel Sheets), his dog Snoopy (Bill Melendez’s recording backlog), and their inexplicable small bird friend Woodstock (Bill Melendez, and isn’t it nice that two of culture’s most iconic characters were voiced by a Latino? Go history!). All of his friends – especially Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller) – think he’s a schlub, but when a certain Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Capaldi) moves to town, Charlie develops an instant crush, vowing to utilize his blank slate and impress her.

As he attempts to win her approval via various schemes that gang aft agley, he dashes his way through a collage of classic Peanuts moments that attempt to browbeat the audience into whimsical nostalgia. Look! There’s Schroeder (Noah Johnston) on his piano! A choir singing “Christmas Time Is Here” (which invariably reminds me of Arrested Development, probably much to the consternation of the Schultz estate)! And over there! It’s Peppermint Patty (Venus Schultheis) playing hockey with her assistant/lesbian love slave Marcie (Rebecca Bloom)!

And the make KIDS watch this stuff? Kinky.

Presumably they put those touches in for the grown-ups dragging their kids to see the film, because I don’t see a six-year-old waxing nostalgic for a property they were introduced to months before via Amazon Prime. But never fear! Along with being an alarmingly thorough, sometimes obsessively devoted Fatal Attraction-y recreation of the tried-and-true Peanuts tropes and characters, The Peanuts Movie is also a dazzlingly boilerplate children’s film sure to fail to offend all the families of this great nation.

Don’t let my suppurating sarcasm fool you, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’re an adult looking for bracingly original entertainment, 1) What the hell are you doing here in the first place? And 2) this film just plain isn’t for you. It’s a charming, unchallenging 80-minute cartoon with more or less conflict-free hijinks and a deeply baked-in moral that can be sniffed out at a hundred yards. It’s as predictable as a calendar, but if you’re in the mood for a bit of colorful fluff, it does the trick.

However, though the narrative lacks complexity, the animation more than makes up for it. Although the spongy CGI technique that renders the characters takes some getting used to, the visual language of Peanuts is delightfully vivacious. Utilizing the unreality of cartoons in a much more satisfying way than most recent children’s films, The Peanuts Movie cleverly blends ancient tropes and modern, squeaky clean humor. 

The joy of embracing the anarchy and visual rule-breaking allowed by animation comes through in nearly every frame, whether it be a creative take on the split-screen telephone effect or giving weight and substance to a cloud of imaginary hearts. It’s a technique that will always keep you engaged, even when the story tastes like an infinitely familiar formula.

The best thing about writing for children is that they haven’t seen squat and thus have no idea when you’re recycling material.

This totally generic, occasionally sweet, aesthetically dashing flick mostly floats along harmlessly, though there are a couple shabby patches that leak out a little air from the piece as a whole. The most physically jarring of these are the all-too-frequent interludes into Snoopy’s jet fighter alter ego. I can’t speak for the rest of the Charlie Brown films, but here Snoopy is at best a tertiary comic relief character and his obligatory flights of fancy to thwart the Red Baron halt the momentum of the film like a bowling ball to the stomach. They pull focus from the actual narrative to a totally pointless action adventure (starring Kristin Chenoweth for some reason) that reads like a twelve-year-old’s dream journal. Sure, the G.I. Joe demographic might dig it, but who in their right mind brought them to see this movie?

The only other major complaint to be had (besides the fact that the Meghan Trainor song written for the movie plays three distinct times, which is at least two and a half too many) is that, in keeping with tradition, the Little Red-Haired Girl’s face is kept obscured. Until it isn’t. They abruptly show the character’s face about a third of the way through the movie with literally zero fanfare, in a side view with a wide shot, at which point they utterly cease any effort not to show her. This turn of events is actively confounding. It would be like Jaws having the shark nip out of the water for a quick ice cream cone in the background of a dialogue scene.

Both these issues do serious damage to the pace and tone of the film, but the classic framework the story is built on could weather any storm. The Peanuts Movie endures, providing a distraction for kids that is skilled enough to engaged the parents as well, at least at an aesthetic level. It’s family filmmaking at its most sweetly inconsequential.

TL;DR: The Peanuts Movie is harmless, sweet children's entertainment that displays an unusually creative visual style.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 979

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