The CG approach does take some getting used to, but director Steve Martino wisely keeps the 3D designs essentially identical to the originals, and shot only flat from head-on or in profile, matching the 2D renderings of yore. When good old Charlie Brown’s bald head and tuft of hair first appears on the screen, you can see some extra texture and shading in his details. And yet he’s also at once and completely the Charlie Brown you remember. The same goes for the rest of the recognizable kids – opinionated Suzy, blanket-toting wise-beyond-his-years Linus, forceful Sally, slacker Peppermint Patty, bookish Marcie, and more – who move, speak, and behave in all the ways you’d expect. They say familiar lines, not because they’re predictable catchphrases, but because they’re essential parts of who they are. Sounds (tinkling piano), motions (dance moves), references (The Great Pumpkin) and conflicts (unrequited crushes, footballs snatched away before they can be kicked) are instantly recognizable. What’s old is new again.
The center of attention is Charlie Brown, who can never catch a break. He’s hyper-aware of how others perceive him, carries with him the sadness and insecurities of failure, and the kind heart and humble persistence to keep trying to do the right thing anyway. The counterpoint is his rambunctious beagle, Snoopy (his yelps and howls voiced once again by Bill Melendez), whose rich interior life leads him on flights of fancy oblivious to the reality about him. The movie is gently structured around Charlie Brown’s crush on the Little Red-Haired Girl and his attempt to find something at which he can be a winner. Big events include a Snow Day, a book report, and a school dance. A few moments find modern pop music encroaching, but it’s otherwise timeless. There’s admiration for Beethoven and Tolstoy, spoken of in worshipful tones. There’s appealing patience, and refreshing throwback appeal. The movie is low-key, loose, and episodic, comfortable in every way.
It’s a deep and true comfort to be back in the primary-color world of the Peanuts characters, a midcentury Anytown, U.S.A. with ice skating in the park, square red dog houses, trees entangled with lost kites, and kids left free to wander and play at their leisure when school’s dismissed for the day. The adults, of course, are unseen on the margins of such a childhood, heard only through the wah-wahs of Trombone Shorty. I could’ve lived in this movie for much longer than its 90 minutes. Sure, the animators take advantage of some modern tricks to visualize Snoopy’s imagination with zippy action that errs on the side of too much swooping and flowing. But he still types on a typewriter, dreams of World War I, and teases the little yellow bird, Woodstock. And the kids still play and dream, fight and make up, have mock versions of adult foibles (complete with Psychiatric Help for a nickel) that are no less real for being felt by small beings, the weight of possibility and expectation hanging over carefree unstructured juvenile time.
What’s so continually wonderful about the movie is finding these pleasures surviving modern gloss, a big production in touch with its heartening smallness. No less than Umberto Eco, writing about the comic strip, praised its “continuous act of empathy, a participation in the inner warmth that pervades the events.” Peanuts, he wrote, “charms both sophisticated adults and children with equal intensity, as if each reader found there something for himself, and it is always the same thing, to be enjoyed in two different keys.” And to think a 3D CGI Hollywood remake could capture these qualities with such graceful melancholy. When poor, awkward, intensely sympathetic Charlie Brown is at last allowed a small victory, the bloom of self-confidence is more triumphant than any number of save-the-world epics. Here is a family film so sophisticated in its simplicity, so direct and immediate in its laughs and its sentiment, it could charm any age without leaving any open mind insulted.