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Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Peanuts Movie

Peanuts, the most influential comic strip ever produced in the U.S., ran from 1950 to 2000, shortly before its creator Charles M. Schulz's death. Therefore it interesting that a film made in 2015 did fairly well. I guess that kids, born after the last strip was drawn, are still absorbing the trials and tribulations of Charlie Brown through some kind of osmosis. The strip is still syndicated, but in repeats only. Schulz wanted no one to continue it.

The Peanuts Movie, directed by Steve Martino, is a gentle, amiable film that may resonate more with baby boomers like me, who were reading Peanuts at its peak. In some ways it's like a "greatest hits" package, when a band plays it's golden oldies. There's the kite-eating tree, Charlie Brown being knocked off the mound by a line drive, Snoopy's use of the line "It was a dark and stormy night," and his battle with the Red Baron, Lucy's psychiatrist booth, her fear of dog germs, and Charlie Brown's obsession with the Little Red-Haired Girl. A post-credit sequence even throws in his attempts to kick that damn football.

What's different about the film is that we actually see the Little Red-Haired Girl. She moves into the neighborhood and Charlie is instantly smitten. He sees her as a chance to reinvent himself--she doesn't know all his past failures. He tries to perform a magic act, but ends up bailing to save his sister Sally's rodeo act. He does a book report for her on War and Peace, but it ends up being shredded by a model airplane (this reminds me of a week of strips way back when when Snoopy was reading the book one word per day, a momentous task). Then he gets a perfect score on a test, but discovers it was an error.

Meanwhile, we actually get the origins of Snoopy's writing habit and his obsession with the Red Baron. He finds a typewriter in a trash bin, and Linus' model airplane inspires Snoopy's tale. His story, saving a love interest of his own, Fifi, from the clutches of the Red Baron parallel Charlie Brown's pursuit of the Little Red-Haired Girl.

I showed this to my students and many were engaged. There is a simplicity to Peanuts that simmers above its complex underpinnings. How many things for children discuss psychiatry (glad to see Lucy has not raised her price--it's still five cents). Shulz always included philosophy, as these wee folks take on the burdens of adulthood. There's less of that in this movie, and more slapstick.

I also liked that we saw some of the old characters, like Frieda and her naturally curly hair, and Pigpen, who indeed can raise a dust cloud in a snow storm. Snoopy is always a joy, and I found it interesting that the relationship between dog and boy is different here--Snoopy actively helps and roots for his master. In the comics, Snoopy was barely aware of him, except when he brought out his dog dish, and referred to him as "the round-headed kid."

I see that a sequel is not a slam dunk, and it's up to Shulz's widow to allow Fox to make another. I hope she agrees, as in a world where kids are routinely playing Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, the world of Peanuts is a nice counter-balance.

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