Good grief, they got it right. That’s the main takeaway of The Peanuts Movie, an animated refresh of Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip and TV specials that resists the urge to muck with Schulz’s endearing legacy. Sure, there’s a Meghan Trainor song in the end credits, and some moments that experiment with the new possibilities of what animation can do in 2015. But the tone and characters are just perfect, and loving reverence for Schulz comes through in every frame of this movie, directed by Steve Martino with a script co-written by (in a telling detail) Bryan and Craig Schulz. It may be 2015, but in Peanuts-land, Snoopy still daydreams about battling the Red Baron, Sally still swoons over blanket-loving Linus, Schroeder still worships at the altar of Beethoven, Vince Guaraldi’s classic jazz score can be heard, and the adults are still all invisible trombones. And poor old Charlie Brown is still a loser with big dreams: he can’t get a kite to fly, he can’t pitch a good ballgame, and his regular trips to Lucy’s psychiatrist booth (five cents, please) typically end with Lucy giving precociously bleak prognoses.
This is exactly the Charlie Brown universe that Peanuts fans remember, in other words, with no truly inappropriate attempts made to gussy up the material. The animation style had been upgraded to glossy 3D, which means the environs have been rendered with more vivid detail than in the past. But it’s a hybrid style with some charmingly retrograde touches, like the imperfect stop-motion feel, or the thick pencil squiggles that make up Linus’ hair, the hearts around Sally’s lovestruck head or Charlie Brown’s uneven mouth. Peanuts has historically always embraced a low-fi aesthetic, (even the previous four animated films, starting with 1968’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, were in a minor league of design compared to what was happening over at Disney) and the new film feels decidedly slicker and more expensive, without dishonoring the legacy. Even the audio choices are right: both Snoopy and his bird pal, Woodstock, are voiced via archival audio of TV producer Bill Melendez, who created the twosome’s indelible repertoire of chirps and cackles. And the voice cast (Noah Schnapp, Hadley Belle Miller, Alexander Garfin and others) is mostly made up of child actors, lending line readings more sincerity than phony polish. The sole exception to that is Kristen Chenowith as Snoopy’s imaginary (and not exactly verbose) love interest, Fifi–it’s casting that merely exists as an in-joke (she once played Sally on Broadway). But no matter.
The story, which centers on Charlie Brown’s attempts to impress the new red-haired girl who moves in across the street (she herself an important figure in Peanuts canon) becomes mainly a series of tests for Charlie as he tries to balance attempts at success and honesty. Then he’s saddled with some newfound popularity when he unexpectedly aces a standardized test, and so he becomes a school hero, to his discomfort and to Lucy’s unbridled consternation. Meanwhile, Snoopy has his own humorous side adventure in his Red Baron-powered imagination, but checks in frequently to Charlie’s story, as the heartfelt relationship between the two has always been a key piece of Peanuts lore.
Sometimes the movie is perhaps almost even too faithful, as if ticking off a checklist while making sure no cherished Peanuts trope goes unused: a scene where Snoopy dresses up as Joe Cool, a scene that shows Lucy at peak levels of fussbudget, jokes about perpetually filthy Pig Pen, etc. And the series’ most philosophical soul, Linus, is a little underutilized in this outing. These are minor complaints, though, because the gentle, fragile soul of Peanuts remains astonishingly preserved. It should satisfy adult fans and probably make new younger ones, because it wonderfully captures Schulz’s ability to tap into real, potent childhood anxieties (counterbalanced by dollops of sheer whimsical entertainment). And if The Peanuts Movie’s ending is perhaps a tiny bit too hopeful than typical for Peanuts, we should remember that even Schulz broke his own rules every so often, and that a small dash of encouragement is what keeps a good blockhead going.