THE PEANUTS MOVIE (2016): An Allegory


The Peanuts Movie opens with a homage to the iconic Vince Guaraldi music of the 60s and 70s (presented by composer Christophe Beck), the classic, whimsical tunes that have been a staple of the gang’s antics given to us by Charles Schulz long ago (in a creative galaxy far away?) before anyone reading this, presumably, was even born. The film itself is a commemoration of the series’ 65th anniversary, bringing back the famous threadbare storytelling style characterized by brevity and minimalism, yet packed with more take away value than some 300+ page novels.

All the familiar faces and usual suspects are on board for the ride. The series’ central hero, a Don Quixote archetype, is beset as usual by life, as we find him, Charlie Brown, preparing to engage the world and a brand new day. It bears mention that he is introduces last, a latecomer to his own party. First we meet his pal Snoopy, the always animated beagle, and his sidekick, Woodstock, together on a snow-covered dog house. We then meet the posse; bashful, bespectacled Marcie, philosophical Linus, dirty ass PigPin, the quiet and musical Schroeder, Charlie’s little sister Sally, the eternal optimist Peppermint Patty, the brash and narcissistic Lucy, and yes, Linus’ blanket too.

“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” –Winston Churchill, in a private conversation with Linus’ blanket
An adult calls on the phone at the Brown house. Sally answers. And it is at which point our ears are caressed by New Orleans jazz musician Trombone Shorty’s rendition of the “waa waa” sound the adults make when they speak. Good news! It’s Snow Day!

Charlie is determined –yes, on a snow day- to fly his kite! And those of us old enough, we all remember Charlie’s kite and his many failed attempts to fly it without incident. “Only Charlie Brown”, one of the other kids phlegmatically intones, as they all watch him trot off to yet another fated kite-flying misadventure.

It sets the tone of the film.

The plot, as stated, is threadbare. It’s a typical school day of the week, though school is out due to the aforementioned Snow Day. After Charlie fails to fly his kite, par business as usual, the gang chances upon a moving van pulling into the community; herald to a new student coming to their school. As all the kids gawk and wonder, Charlie muses to himself about the happy prospects of meeting a new person, potentially making a new friend, and, happiest of all, engaging the once in a lifetime opportunity of the First Impression, a universal Golden Ox, so to speak, for cleansing oneself of past stigmas. Indeed, meeting a new person is a kind of rebirth. And Charlie, naturally, looks forward to it.

It matters that he immediately assumes the new student will be a boy. It matters, thematically, that when Charlie arrives at homeroom the next day, all the kids already in class moan sorrowfully at the shared disappointment in seeing him at the door, and, alas, not the new student.

When the student does finally show up, it’s a girl. And Charlie Brown falls instantly, foolishly, and hopelessly in love. The film at this point positions itself as a boy meets girl story, one that spends its runtime balanced on the fence of the question –whether it will commit to actually being a boy meets girl story, predicated on whether Charlie can gain reign over his emotions and become a decisive character.

This is not a mark against the film.

Indeed, the Peanuts mythology is notable for its minimalism. One is reminded of a Paulo Coelho novel, or one of those Dan Millman new age parables serving a shelf for stacking nuggets of wisdom and insight. As a child I remember watching the old show and being challenged by it to jot down unfamiliar words and ask mom what they meant. Only, mom somehow in the know of the show’s edutainment function, to be sent to the dictionary to look it up for myself. This, for me, makes director Steve Martino’s decision to present the digitally animated film in the old 2D art style a wise one, bridging the gap between old and new in the way few callbacks to the 80s films in recent years have achieved. Speaking of callbacks to the 80s, who wants to bet this trend (Chipmunks, The Smurfs, Garfield) spawns, eventually, an Animaniacs feature wherein Carmen Sandiego is exposed as the mustache twisting Keyser Soze of the WB animated universe? Too much? Too soon? Well. One can dream..

“Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in Sandiego, but I’m afraid of her.’
The Peanuts gang learns much, but they never change or grow. This point is made definitive as Charlie is shown getting ready for school one morning, looking in a closet stocked with copies of the same exact outfit, saying to himself that, today, he will choose something that will mark his ascension on the social hierarchy. This is at once chilling and not so much, as these characters exist as an antithesis of life, happy to thrive in a Groundhog Day-like existence for the entirety of their tenure in pop culture, content to interact with one another in a vacuum for recycling lessons and messages for our (the audience’s) benefit. We, conversely, live in a world wherein the virtues that Charlie Brown represents are not valued. Not by others, anyway. But the Schulz crew (from a script by Bryan Schulz based on a narrative idea by Craig Schulz, grandson and son of Charles respectively) offer a peak into a world where not only do these virtues matter (honesty, personal integrity, honor), but they are appreciated and celebrated by others in your life. As a film, it confirms and validates these values. It dares you to care to cultivate them within yourself –whether others notice or not.

Once you realize that Lucy is simultaneously Charlie’s biggest enemy (in her role as a mouthpiece for the world, ours) and his best friend (for her brutal honesty), it is impossible to unsee. “Look in this mirror, Charlie Brown. This is the classic face of failure.“

Well. As far as this line of deconstructive thought goes, it’s clear that Snoopy –as he’s always been, in retrospect- is Charlie’s own Tyler Durden. The things Charlie attempts, Snoopy does better.

“You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not the black zigzagging stripe on your cowardly yellow shirt.”
Snoopy has a subplot wherein he acts out the bombastic type of heroism that Charlie can only experience vicariously through means of basic human decency. He is compassionate towards his sister. He is self-sacrificial. He cares about the well-being of others and is incapable of relishing in ill-gotten gain. Meanwhile Snoopy imaginatively fights in an air battle against the Red Baron, a historical reference to airman Manfred von Richthofen who fought with the Imperial German Army Air Service in WWI, to rescue and win the honor of a girl -the object of his affection. “We were lucky to get through the weather,” Richthofen once said of a mission. And you almost wish he’d shown up in the film in a glorified cameo, to say it once for us and wink at the camera.

At one point in Charlie’s arc in this film, as is a signature of underdog fiction, he rises above his station. He is celebrated by his peers. Carried on shoulders. There is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to newfound sexual prowess and confidence. There is a turn of events, that I won’t spoil, where Charlie is faced with the decision of either embracing this crude trickster genie of a path out the despair of his life, or owning up to a clerical error that casts him, for a time, in a heroic light. His decision in this regard winds up boldly declaring the film’s thesis. And every minute of it is worth the sit. Not just for nostalgia’s sake, but for the warm smile it will thaw out of your face.

Charlie’s early dilemma as expressed to Lucy is an intellectual quandary indeed, and worth repeating: “Let’s just say there’s this girl I’d like to impress. But she’s something and I’m nothing. If I were something and she was nothing, I could talk to her. Or, if she was nothing and I was nothing, I could talk to her. But she’s something and I’m nothing, so I just can’t talk to her.”

It says much about Charlie as an archetype, that his social awkwardness and self-defeating self-image would be his redeeming quality set against personalities that so closely imitate the attitudes of an unforgiving zeitgeist. Lucy, a friend, begins her reply by pointing out the innate ridiculousness of his comment, only to proceed by way of encouragement to inform him that all it takes for him to impress a girl is some great accomplishment like, say, a Congressional Medal of Honor or a Nobel Peace Prize. Well.  There are implications, and then there are implications.

All tolled, The Peanuts Movie is a wonderful film that anyone with even a cursory appreciation of the series should see.

One complaint. The dance song used in this movie, "Better When I’m Dancin’", is the bane of my existence. Excuse my French.., but I hate this fucking song. With apologies to Meghan Trainor, I wish I had a penny for every movie from 2015 that used this wretched song - I would go out right now and purchase myself four hotdogs from Burger King –to spite my own soul, and the agreed upon mores of civilized behavior.

“Thanks, Obama!”
Khalil Barnett is a martial arts practioner living in Florida, and is also a filmmaker, writer, producer and actor starring in the independent action drama series, The Way, and co-creator of upcoming indie action short, Santos. Visit the official Facebook page for more info.

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