Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Peanuts Movie

Preamble: One of the obsessions I had as a child (not that I had many) was "Peanuts." As I explain in the piece I wrote years and years ago below this review, that newspaper strip—the wholly-responsible creation of Charles M. Schulz—informed my childhood in ways I didn't understand until I'd left the strip behind and came back to it in adulthood. You read those strips, whether stand-alone or in series, and marvel at the insight and (yes) clear-eyed viciousness that Schulz poured into his strip. You look at the underlying idea of, say, "The Great Pumpkin," or Schroeder's willing Beethoven out of a toy piano, Snoopy's Walter Mitty-ish mental wanderlust, Lucy's domination (her "Psychiatric Help 5¢" booth is just a brilliant turning of a childhood cliche) and Charlie Brown's perpetual loser-dom and realize that Schulz was something of a social radical...and he put it in a strip about little kids! The warped childhood of "Peanuts" is indistinguishable from the desperation of adulthood. Only funnier. You don't learn that at six years old. But, it does provide some interesting foreshadowing for what's to come..
The first "Peanuts" strip: a punch-line with a palpable punch

Like a Warm Puppy
Keeping the Grief Good, Charlie Brown

So, there's two "Peanuts" (or "Peanutses"). There's the strip that Charles M. Schulz created that created the sensation, and then there's "the sensation"—the more positive, merchandisable version that adorns Hallmark cards and is "Peanuts"-lite, full of soft-ball aphorisms and "warm puppy" thoughts. It's the "Peanuts" of the TV specials—"A Charlie Brown Christmas" and the like. Schulz had creative control over those, just as he did over the strips. But, he made the "Tube"-"Peanuts" less tragic, less biting, and less mean. 

And less meaningful.

The new Blue Sky production of The Peanuts Movie is like those—you can tell by the music and the call-backs (check out when the kids dance) to those earlier hand-drawn cartoons. Charlie Brown is the perpetual loser, but in the end, he is celebrated and "has his day." In the strips, the only time Charlie Brown had a triumph was when he got a rash that made his round head look like a baseball and he started wearing a paper sack to cover it up. All of a sudden, he was looked up to as a sage and a more respectable person (and isn't that a commentary on how perception and "worth" are controlled by pre-conceived notions and looks?).
"Peanuts" has been doing that in its TV specials since 1968 (with the benediction of Schulz's scripts), so one can't kick about that (the animation director for those, Bill Melendez, still provides the voice for Snoopy and Woodstock in this, by the way—odd, since he died in 2008, so they must have a library of his vocalizations). They are little sermons, preaching to the under-age choir, about the advantages of being humble, persistent, and steady, even if the other 98% of the cast is anything but. Good ol' Charlie Brown, the Mother Theresa of the comics. Bad ol' Everybody Else. At least there aren't any Dolly Madison commercials.
The Charlie Brown POV
The through-line of the story is of Charlie Brown and his attempts to impress The Little Red-Headed Girl (who was never seen in the funnies, but is visible, if obliquely for most of the movie), which runs concurrently with a Snoopy-penned story of The World War I Flying Ace and his run-ins with The Red Baron (over the affections of a French Poodle Fifi). That's the majority of it, with smatterings of the various personalities of the lot. Good use is made of sight gags, which, under Steve Martino's comic timing are far more deft than with Melendez's cell animations. There is the occasional nod to Chuck Jones in the timing and the delayed effect of physics on solid masses. However the appearance, Charlie Brown's gang definitely inhabit the pliable Toon-town.
A "Chuck Jones" moment
What is revolutionary (and where the movie is truly exceptional and one might say innovative) is in the mixture of 3-D CGI and 2-D animation and how seamlessly it breathes life—and dimension—into Schulz' flat pictures. Schulz wasn't much into perspective and his skills were simple and expressive (things we take as given's like the "worry-brackets" around the eyes)—you never saw a 3/4 angle from Schulz. Faces were either profiles or slightly off-center. The cartoons maintained that limitation. So does The Peanuts Movie. Heads zip from 0 to 90 without so much as an in-between frame. Heads and bodies are rendered in CGI, as is the rest of the world, a simplified photo-realism. But the expressions of the characters are a weirdly workable line animation—black scrawls of india ink in the Schulz tradition. Eyes are dots. Eyebrows are mercurial lines. Mouths quiver but never pout in three-dimensions. The physical movements of bodies with mass are supplemented by speed lines and impacts, and flashbacks are black and white line animations that emulate Schulz perfectly.
I found myself admiring the hair—the scalp under Linus' stringy hair, Frieda's naturally curly hair is resplendent, Lucy's hair helmet is detailed and occasionally frayed. And Charlie Brow's single curl in front and tuft in back—a barber's crew cut (Schulz's father, as well as Charlie Brown's, was a barber) actually has a texture to it. There's life to these images, far more convincing than the plaster bobble-heads I had as a kid, and they are amazingly true to Schulz's graphics, only they pop out of the screen, they move and react in ways that surprise and amaze.
"Our hands touched, Chuck"
Its an amusing little play-set, and it is suffused with the music of Vince Guaraldi (adapted by Christophe Beck), that melancholic heroin-jazz that seemed an unlikely match for Schulz's kids, but became the essential soundtrack that you can't separate from their bouncing gaits. The Peanuts Movie is both familiar, comforting and entirely different.
You Blockhead!
It is the best incarnation of "Peanuts" in animated form whether you grew up with still lives or cartoons. And, as in that oft-used phrase, it's "good grief."

Personal Heroes: Good ol’ Charles Schulz

He was nicknamed “Sparky.” He taught me how to read. He taught me what was funny. He probably had more than a hand in making me appreciate suffering and melancholy.

And he always made me laugh. He still does. One of the great joys in snatching up the new publications of “The Complete Peanuts” is to see the early, humbly ground-breaking work of Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz—his gentle skewering of life and ideas in Eisenhower-era America-a kind of combination of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" and “The Button-Down Mind” dressed in shorts and penny-loafers. The consistent chagrin of Charlie Brown at another talent un-achieved. The constant harpiness of Lucy that ever expanded into inventive new areas of abuse. Linus, the intellectual, who, although he always had a fact or a scripture quote at the ready, still depended on a security blanket. Schroeder-an obsessive compulsive deifying Beethoven to the point he can play classical pieces on a toy piano. Schulz’s kids were doomed to be seen from two angles only: straight-on or profile--like a “wanted” poster. They walked six inches above the ground at all times. Linus’ little cult of “The Great Pumpkin” turned religion and the pageantry of Christmas on its materialistically-tinseled ear. The complete neuroses of these little losers that, of course, turns the dog to flights of fancy. You’d escape, too, if your lemonade stand had been replaced by a “psychiatric booth.” (“5¢ The Doctor is In”)

It became the norm (I was going to say fashionable, but that takes some effort) to simply dismiss Schulz and his work. You couldn’t ignore him, he was everywhere—TV specials, greeting cards, Macy’s Parade balloons, hawking Dolly Madison sugar snacks and Met-Life Insurance. Al Capp once wheezed that Schulz was the only man in history who made a fortune selling “clean” postcards. Schulz’s scribbles made him a multi-millionaire with a big skating rink as his own private Xanadu. It’s easy to look at all that and discount the work he was doing. Anything that popular, so universally received, couldn’t be of any REAL value, could it? And sure, he could play it safe. But the basic concepts of “Peanuts” (he hated that name—it was the idea of a publisher) are bizarre. We just grew used to them. And then we took them for granted.

The fact that Schulz, day after day, faced his white cardboard and created a strip six days a week with an expanded Sunday strip by himself with no assistants for nearly 50 years is an amazing achievement (something that is endlessly written about in the links below). That he could still go to that well-spring of creativity and come up with fresh concepts with the exquisitely-timed four panels of his strip makes him that much more inspiring than his contemporaries. Trudeau couldn’t do it. Breathed, Watterson, Larson—they all quit, fearing the dreaded “staleness” that Schulz—humble Charlie Schulz—nimbly avoided for nearly half a century. And his ambitions were rather small: a good quality gag, a fine ink line.

The strip was so much a part of the man and the man the strip, that he only retired, very reluctantly, when he feared he was dying. And when the nation heard that he was hanging it up, it was like somebody pulled a football out from under them. Suddenly, the book collections that stopped being printed every year like clockwork, reappeared. There was a crush for interviews. Tributes were made. At the end of it, Schulz saw just how relevant he was. That must have meant something very special for him in his last days. Or he might have seen it as another “Peanuts” irony, hung his head against a brick-wall and said “Augh!” For me, there is something awe-inspiring and just a little sacred that on the eve of the publication of his very last original strip, Schulz died in his sleep. When his creation ended, so did he. And it outlasted him just a little bit. From a lifetime documenting the frustrations and heart aches of failure, he got that one exactly right. But then, Schulz’s timing, comic and ironic, was always perfect.

Among the links below are some of those last tributes, and I’ve included
Art Spiegelman’s rather cold (and admiring) analysis of the man and his work. Plus, there’s my favorite strip of his…at least today’s.

My favorite sight gag from "Arrested Development"
The Boyhood Charles Schulz
"Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, he's the Charlie Browniest"
Schulz's final strip, published the day after he died—he had created it six weeks before for this date.

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