While fans and critics continue to debate the perceived merits and/or failures of that other big cultural icon movie (Spectre) that opened this past weekend, The Peanuts Movie slipped into theaters as well - charming critics (read our Peanuts Movie review) and racking up a tidy $45 million opening weekend. And deservedly so: The Peanuts Movie sets out in simple, direct fashion to recapture the essence of Charles M. Schulz’s original comic strips – as well as the classic TV specials and movies that followed – while giving a fresh coat of digital paint (via 3D animation). It is the basic, canny combination of innocence and subtle sophistication that made the Peanuts gang so successful in the first place, and that is also what drives the new movie and proves the Schulz creation to be timeless.
Screen Rant visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California earlier this year to meet some of the filmmakers and cast who have brought the late cartoonist’s beloved creation to life again - for the first new Peanuts movie in 35 years. It certainly helped matters that two of the movie’s screenwriters, Craig Schulz and Bryan Schulz, are Charles’ son and grandson respectively, but they weren't alone in bringing Peanuts back to the big screen - collaborating with Horton Hears a Who! director Steve Martino.
“When I saw the final version, it was an absolute home run,” Craig Schulz reflected on the finished film’s more contemporary – but not too modernized – visual aesthetic. “The look of the film is fantastic and all the family members that have seen it, love it. There’s no doubt that people should be comfortable with the look of the film.”
The animation retains the minimalist feel of both Schulz’s original artwork as well as the early animated films and specials, while adding a depth that perhaps wasn’t available 40 or 50 years ago. “We’re meeting an audience on a big screen, we’re painting on a bigger canvas,” said Martino. “With the paint brush we use with computer animation, there’s an opportunity to create a richness of imagery to feel like you were transported into Charlie Brown’s world or into Snoopy’s imagination. But in doing that, we also animated these characters in poses that [Schulz] drew. That was our guide. We are using 2D animation techniques using 3D objects and I feel that is how it connects to what we remember.”
It’s not just the look that fans remember, however; it’s the relationships between perennial “loser” Charlie Brown, the bossy Lucy Van Pelt, her wise but blanket-clinging brother Linus, the snappy Peppermint Patty and all the rest of the kids – not to mention Charlie Brown’s wildly imaginative and irrepressible pet beagle, Snoopy – that have endeared generations of fans.
Craig Schulz was asked about re-establishing those relationships in a 90-minute movie - in a way that could please older fans while connecting to new ones:
“We tried to, and we have such a diverse cast and they have such phenomenal personalities,” he replied. “But if we tried to define every character, it would make the movie about 15-20 hours long. What happened -- Steve can attest to this -- about two to three years into the movie someone said, ‘Watch the movie like someone who did not know anything about Peanuts characters.’ In doing that, we realized there was a lot of fixes we needed to do. We went through with Steve’s help and revisited those issues and also created some origin stories, like Snoopy’s typewriter and why Snoopy is typing. Also, why is Snoopy chasing the Red Baron? My son had come to me and asked that. That set the light bulb off.”
“Every film that I work on, even if you’re working on a franchise film -- I worked on the last Ice Age movie -- you can’t take for granted that everybody knows what this is about,” concurred Martino. “Thankfully, when Craig brought the original script to us, they approached it as a feature film. It was not just a collection of the comic strips loosely stitched together. It was a real film story with an arc and three-act structure. That drives what the storytelling should be. Along the way, if there were elements from the comic strip that helped animate that, then they were great things for us to include.”
Craig added that while there was room for a lot of iconic Peanuts moments from previous incarnations, they had to meet one requirement: “We knew if it was organic to the story, we would tie it together into the story. There was a lot there people would want to see. We mined the strip and thought of what people wanted to see, what they had to see. The music, the blanket… we never tried to force it and it had to fit in the appropriate time into the story and if it didn’t, it didn’t make the cut.”
As for the characters themselves, a new generation of voices had to be found. “It is so amazing to get to play these iconic characters,” said 10-year-old Hadley Belle Miller, who voices Lucy. “Our parents grew up with them. So it’s kind of like time to pass it down to kids of the next generation.” Agreeing with her was 11-year-old Francesca Capaldi, the object of Charlie Brown’s affection – the Little Red-Haired Girl – as well as Frieda (of the naturally curly hair). “Some of my friends don’t know who Charlie Brown or Snoopy is,” said Capaldi. “They’ve seen some specials, but they don’t really know who they are. I think it’s great for them to be able to see Charlie Brown, and Snoopy, and the whole gang.”
The character voices from TV specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas have, in many cases, stayed as indelible in fan memories as the cartoons themselves, and it’s almost eerie how well the new cast has managed to stay true to those voices. “I only heard the Lucy voice a couple of times,” recalled Miller. “So I kind of developed my own. I went in thinking I would get the part of Sally because I thought of myself as Sally. So I tried out for Sally and Lucy. And they said, ‘Your voice sounds exactly like Lucy.’ So I guess I kind of used my normal voice but in a little lower range.”
“I watched a few original Charlie Brown specials and stuff,” said Noah Schapp, who voiced Charlie Brown, about how he captured the voice. “I still sort of used my own voice, and I used it in a slower, lower voice.” He continued, “I love playing Charlie Brown because, one, I can relate to him. I never give up and he never gives up. And it’s awesome to play a person like that because there’s very rare people who never give up and always pursue what they’re doing.” (Schapp can also be seen alongside Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies, and called working for director Steven Spielberg “an amazing experience… he’s just a normal person and he’s always very kind.”)
It is perhaps Charlie Brown’s dogged determination – whether to fly his kite, kick that football before Lucy pulls it away, or win the heart of the Little Red-Haired Girl – that makes him such a wonderful character to follow as he fumbles his way through childhood. And as we said earlier, it’s the innocence, seasoned with a bit of savvy, of the entire Peanuts gang that has endured and makes The Peanuts Movie such a delight. “
What I love about our story is that it really looks at Charlie Brown and Snoopy, but particularly at Charlie Brown and what he’s been through in the 50 years in the comic strip,” concluded Steve Martino. “The qualities that he has, we often overlook. He’s kind. He’s honest. He perseveres. He picks himself up, no matter what happens and in the film, we try to show those qualities are as important, if not more important than being the grand winner and winning some medal.”
The Peanuts Movie is out in theaters now.