Julia Pott is a British illustrator and animator based in Los Angeles. She completed her MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art and her short films have screened at festivals including Sundance and SXSW. She was named one of Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces and an Indie Film Breakout by Indiewire. She is an ADC Young Gun and a YCN Professional Award Winner. Her clients include Bat for Lashes, Hermes, J. Crew, Madewell, Oreo, Rachel Antonoff and Toyota. She is currently developing a short with Cartoon Network.
If, like me, you occasionally like to roll around in your own shortcomings and disappointments, there really is no better partner in crime than Charlie Brown.
Being a relatively emotional child, I found Peanuts very soothing. The comic strip and subsequent TV specials were like curling up underneath a slightly neurotic blanket, a blanket that said, “It’s OK, I feel it too.” Much like my adult addiction, Gilmore Girls, Peanuts portrayed characters who were wise beyond their years walking around a safe suburbia waxing philosophical about unrequited love. It was relatively low stakes. Actually, scratch that – if I remember correctly, having a crush on someone in middle school is the highest stakes there are when you’re that age. But, nonetheless, it was terribly comforting.
Charles M. Schulz was greatly skilled at channeling his angst and anxiety into his cartoons. It was Schulz who taught me that art could be used as therapy, a way to relieve unrequited love or get revenge on someone who has wronged you. I often feel that my animations are just a slight progression from me sitting on my bedroom floor with two My Little Ponies, acting out romantic scenarios between me and the boy I had a crush on. I have Schulz to thank for allowing me to realize I could channel all that longing into something tangible.
David Michaelis, who authored his biography, noted:
As he would do with other injuries in his life, when Judy broke Schulz’ heart, he treasured the hurt that Judy had inflicted by putting her into a cartoon.
The events of Schulz’ life are as poetic and heartbreaking as the comic strip itself. Here is some Charles M. Schulz trivia:
- Charlie Brown’s love interest, the Little Red-Haired Girl – who was a constant in the comic strip and is central to the plot of The Peanuts Movie – was directly based on Schulz’ own red-haired girl, Donna Mae Johnson. Together for three years, when Charles eventually proposed to Donna, she said no – only to marry someone else a few months later.
- Charlie Brown’s best friend Snoopy was originally named Sniffy – until Schulz recalled that his late mother once said that if they were to ever get another dog, they should name it Snoopy, a term of endearment in Norwegian (Snuppa) that means “sweetheart.”
- And, heartache of all heartaches, the last time Charles saw his mother she said to him: “Goodbye. We’ll probably never see each other again.”
I have been eager to see the new imagining of Peanuts for a while. Co-written by Schulz’ son Craig Schulz and grandson Bryan Schulz, the writing duo went to great lengths to stay true to the subtle timing and wording of Peanuts, refusing to bend to Fox’s suggestion to make the humor more kid-friendly. Bryan Schulz said that whenever they needed inspiration, they would go back and look at the original comic strip for ideas. It all sounds like a recipe for a pretty sweet Peanuts movie.
Unfortunately, it feels like all of the ingredients with none of the meat.
The Peanuts Movie does, in essence, honor the original strip. It opens to the classic Peanuts soundtrack as we meet the original cast of characters on a snow day. The Little Red-Haired Girl moves to town and Charlie Brown falls in love. At the same time, Snoopy has his own love story with a new character, Fifi, who he must save from the infamous Red Baron. Throughout the movie we see nods to the original films, such as the kids singing carols in the auditorium and doing strange dance moves at the school dance. The film portrays the characters faithfully – Lucy gives out advice for five cents a pop, Schroeder plays Beethoven beautifully on his mini piano, Linus is very, very wise – but it feels like the film is working off a list of predetermined catchphrases and hobbies and it never ventures outside of their most rudimentary characteristics. In playing it safe, the film loses some of what makes it special.
In one of the original comic strips, Charlie Brown walks by the house of the Little Red-Haired Girl. He sits down next to Snoopy and says, “I wish I had two ponies.” He goes on to say how he would give one of the ponies to the Little Red-Haired Girl and they could ride out to the countryside and hold hands. He sighs and then turns to Snoopy and asks, “Why aren’t you two ponies?”
The Peanuts Movie never quite reaches the poetry of that moment. The Schulz family had access to Schulz’ original comic strips, so one wonders why that’s the case. However, even if the film doesn’t manage to encapsulate all of the soul of the original strip, it does have a lot of its charm. The voice acting is wondrous and although on a personal level I would have preferred to see the film in its original 2D style, Blue Sky Studios does a great job reimagining it in 3D. There is some great physical humor and some nice vignettes; when the kids’ trombone-voiced teacher gives the class a standardized test, Linus stands up in protest while Schroeder plays his mini piano under his desk, one of the moments which felt closest to the Schulz’ style.
I think what is lacking in The Peanuts Movie is the voice of the cartoon strips. All credit to the creators of this film for trying to emulate it, but I think without Schulz’ direct influence it could never quite live up to the magic that was the original Peanuts. Schulz once characterized Peanuts as “a study in disappointment”:
All the loves in the strip are unrequited; all the baseball games are lost; all the test scores are D-minuses; the Great Pumpkin never comes; and the football is always pulled away.
What makes the original Peanuts what it is isn’t just that the kids are cute, or that Pig-Pen never washes himself – there is also a darkness there that came from Schulz himself, a personal longing and heartache that is remedied with wise words and humor by a cast of tiny philosophers.