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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The New Peanuts Movie Is Not an Autobiography

Posted by on Tue, Mar 18, 2014 at 4:30 PM

A fancy pants computer-animated Peanuts movie is scheduled for release in 2015. A teaser trailer for it was released today:

There was an autobiographical underpinning to Peanuts that a lot of people don't recognize. The thing about Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoons is that they're an intensely personal statement. Those characters in that world are like handwriting, they're so stylized and individual. Reading Peanuts in the paper, you could watch Schulz's hand start to quaver as he got older, and you could always picture him at his desk, sketching each panel. I enjoy the old Peanuts animated TV specials as much as anyone, but they feel more like second-hand stories, like an old family friend fondly recalling something your grandparents did before you were born.

There's no trace of Charles Schulz in this trailer. You can look at some stills from the Peanuts movie on Cartoon Brew, and they demonstrate exactly what I mean. We don't need to see the texture of Snoopy's hair. We don't need to be able to recognize every stitch in the scuffed leather on Charlie Brown's shoes. That's because Snoopy didn't have hair, and Charlie Brown's shoes weren't made out of leather. Those shoes were always made out of ink and paper. Snoopy was a lasso of ink thrown around a white patch of newsprint. You might think that sounds obvious and petty, but I'm trying to get at something more meaningful here.

Peanuts wasn't a document of realism. The characters in Peanuts weren't intended to be real children who grow up and get jobs and have kids and die. Schulz never once tried to explain the passage of time in his strip, why the kids could be mesmerized by hi-fi stereo systems in the 1960s but also obsessed with Tiger Woods in the 1990s. They were into those things because Charles Schulz was into those things. Real kids don't talk like that, but Schulz did. When Schulz had a cold, the lines that made up Charlie Brown weren't quite as dynamic as they were when Schulz was feeling good. If there's no trace of Schulz in a Peanuts story, it's not really a Peanuts story.

I'm not going to call this Peanuts movie an abomination or anything like that. I'm sure that it's fine. I'm happy that more kids will have Peanuts in their lives because of this film. But for filmmakers to boast about how they have "have a bigger canvas" in this movie, and claim that they're "going to take it a step further" demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what Peanuts is. Peanuts fits into a series of squares less than an inch wide and less than an inch tall. Schulz never needed a bigger canvas: His whole entire life fit into those tiny damned squares, and it made for one of the most staggering works of art that was created in the 20th century.

Schulz's heirs and the movie's producers can try to convince us all they want that Schulz would have given his blessing to this film, and, hell, he probably would have. But there's nothing of his life, here. The best we can hope for is that the movie will manage to take on a life of its own.


Comments (23) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
A very nice piece of writing. Thank you.
Posted by J.R. on March 18, 2014 at 4:45 PM · Report this
You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me 2
"...a series of squares less than an inch wide and less than an inch tall..."

That makes my dick more than 16 inches long...
Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me on March 18, 2014 at 4:59 PM · Report this
sprflycat 3
Why the actual fuck does everything need to be in 3D? When will that technology die?
Posted by sprflycat on March 18, 2014 at 5:02 PM · Report this
Fnarf 4
Ugh, a thousand ughs. What @3 said.
Posted by Fnarf on March 18, 2014 at 5:06 PM · Report this
biffp 5
I agree with @1. It's well written. I'm not sure about sharing Peanuts with my kids. It's not a kids cartoon. I still feel so hopeful when I see Charlie Brown, and sad when things don't work out for him.
Posted by biffp on March 18, 2014 at 5:23 PM · Report this
Granny Smith 6
Horseshit. Everything you say about peanuts is true but it isn't for our generation to say what is and isn't "authentic" for the next. We should see more than this teaser before condemning it.
Posted by Granny Smith on March 18, 2014 at 5:29 PM · Report this
(slow clap)...
Exactly, dead on correct.
Posted by usagi on March 18, 2014 at 5:37 PM · Report this
TLjr 8
@6: Good point. I'll put this on my list of movies to watch and make up my own mind about. Maybe sometime after I watch "Ender's Game" and the director's cut of "Showgirls."
Posted by TLjr on March 18, 2014 at 5:37 PM · Report this
dnt trust me 9
If this movie is "fancy pants" what do call all the other million dollar crap-on-film that you write about?
Posted by dnt trust me on March 18, 2014 at 6:40 PM · Report this
I understand that you are saying these are more than drawings, more like ideograms, where eat represents a mood, a feeling, a thought.

Though, I'm not so much worried about the look, as the plot and dialog. I hope they don't put it through the Hollywood Agenda Mill and warp it towards over-sexualization, sardonic adult jokes, and socio-politically meaningful they almost always do.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on March 18, 2014 at 6:51 PM · Report this
rob! 11
Having read the Michaelis biography of Schulz with a mixture of heartache and the satisfaction of intuitions confirmed, all I can say is "My stomach hurts..."

And I wonder who, exactly, among his heirs and assigns was in favor of this.
Posted by rob! on March 18, 2014 at 6:52 PM · Report this
Agreed. I grew up on Peanuts. I got sad when I could see the shakiness in Sparky's hand in the artwork; the less imaginative writing compared to previous years. When he retired, and passed away the day after the last Sunday strip ran in the paper, my tears were part sadness, part a reaction to the poignancy of his life's work, and his life ending almost at the same moment. Oh, and Charlie Brown was an autobiographical character.

@3: I couldn't agree more! I have a weak eye, and 3D doesn't work for me. Fuck 3D!
Posted by Johnston on March 18, 2014 at 7:58 PM · Report this
You've said in words the feeling that I had when I first watched the "Charlie Brown's Christmas" on TV. Those real-little-kid voices sounded strange and wrong, because this wasn't a kids' cartoon.
Posted by sarah70 on March 18, 2014 at 8:02 PM · Report this
"Schulz never needed a bigger canvas"

Very true. In fact, the gimmick of the strip when it premiered was that it was smaller than all the other strips on the page. Of course, that was back when strip cartoonists had room to actually draw.

The CGI version captures the look of the strip a lot better than I had feared, but it still sits oddly with me. For that matter, I don't think I've ever seen a copy or parody of Peanuts by other cartoonists that didn't look off-model. Schulz's line was inimitable.
Posted by cekman on March 18, 2014 at 8:26 PM · Report this
"Schulz never needed a bigger canvas"

Very true. In fact, the gimmick of Peanuts when it premiered was that it was smaller than all the other strips on the comics page. Of course, that was back when strip cartoonists had room to actually draw.

The CGI trailer approximates the look of the drawing a lot better than I'd feared, but it will always sit oddly with me. I don't think I've ever seen even a copy or parody of Peanuts by other cartoonists that didn't look off-model. Schulz's line was inimitable.
Posted by cekman on March 18, 2014 at 8:30 PM · Report this
Knat 16
Oh Blue Sky, how far you have fallen...
Posted by Knat on March 18, 2014 at 8:39 PM · Report this
seatackled 17
When Schultz ended the strip, he said something like, "Do you really want someone else to be writing this?"
Posted by seatackled on March 18, 2014 at 8:57 PM · Report this
1) I don't think Peanuts was about hugging, like this trailer seems to be. 2) The hair on Charlie Brown's head always seemed to be a single hair, or a sketch indicating a small amount of hair - it's just a line, as you say - so why is the CGI version some kind of rope of hair? Too creepy. 3) I like 3D and some 3D films, but this? Really? More than whether it's 3D or not, though, is whether Charlie Brown and company need to be textured, computer-rendered, in-the-round "realistic" characters with photo-realistic trees and doghouses in the background, but with...some drawn features on their faces? It looks weird. Why not go CGI (if you have to) but preserve a 2D hand-drawn look, like that "Paperman" short a couple of years back?
Posted by g on March 18, 2014 at 10:35 PM · Report this
John Scott Tynes 19
@18 pegged it. The CGI isn't the issue, the issue is the trailer ends with Charlie Brown in a loving embrace, sighing with happiness. That's the fucking issue.…
Posted by John Scott Tynes on March 18, 2014 at 11:15 PM · Report this
@1 agreed
Posted by chris in dk on March 19, 2014 at 5:41 AM · Report this
I like the sorta stop-motion frame rate they have going on. But the rope of hair is just weird. I think originally that line was the front of a very short haircut...Charlie Brown's dad was a barber. Anyway, if you're gonna have drawn lines around their eyes, etc., maybe the hair should be that too? Also, Snoopy seems to be the later-years' big-headed and fluffy version, instead of the rubbery and lean dog from the comics. This will probably suck but I'm still kinda curious.
Posted by g on March 19, 2014 at 7:47 AM · Report this
On the subject of hand-drawn to CG, it can be done well, really well. I was very pleasantly surprised to see how well Warner Bros. translated the Roadrunner & Coyote cartoons into lush CG animated shorts a few years ago. They really preserved the essence of all the chaotic violence and cartoon physics, the music, everything. It's a real shame that they only tacked them onto a few woeful family films (some of which, like Yogi Bear, offered far worse translations), as opposed to including them with regular films like they did with the originals.

However, the Roadrunner shorts had all that legacy to *preserve*, built on decades of past animation. Peanuts animation was always much less dynamic, and if they're aiming to translate the *strip*, they are opening a can of worms. Translating the static nature of a comic strip, especially when drawn like Schultz's work, is like going book-to-movie, in that the individual has filled in the panels and the spaces between them in their own mind's eye. One would expect a more mixed reaction, since thousands of people over six decades all have their own slightly different idea of how Charlie Brown soars through the air when that asshole pulls the football away. Personally, at least from this tiny shred of material, it looks good, kind of like those stupid MetLife commercials but with more polish. The non-geometric lines erupting from motion look faithful and great.

Now onto, you know, knitting thousands of semi-connected 1-minute reads into an hour that someone can sit through (without clinging to nostalgia alone). That seems like a bigger issue to solve, in order for this to not be a turd.

Think of the can of worms and gnashing of teeth that would erupt if some studio tried to make a CG Calvin & Hobbes movie and capture the magic. And that strip that was designed to be artistic and dynamic as hell. Watterson was right to keep it pure and unadulterated, preserved. His.

...At least till he kicks off, and the syndicate decides it needs some nostalgia money from all those aging 90's kids :'-(
Posted by love that drawing on March 19, 2014 at 9:36 AM · Report this
Catherwood 23
Can't believe nobody's mentioned this yet, but 3eanuts captures the essential despair of Peanuts perfectly:
Posted by Catherwood on March 19, 2014 at 2:51 PM · Report this

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