Film 2020: The Peanuts Movie

I have history with Peanuts. Back then, in the Seventies when the fascination with Charles Schulz’s creation was at its highest, it seemed like everybody on the planet knew Charlie Brown and Snoopy. There were over fifty of the British paperback compilations and I had them all. For my twenty-first birthday, my presents included¬†Peanuts Silver Jubilee, which went round the room at my party, its presence indicated by the laughter in whichever corner it had reached.

In the Eighties,my enthuusiasm started to wane. Schulz was ageing, the space allowed his strip was diminished, he was less able to build to his classic gags and themes in the rhythm of three panels instead of four, the new characters didn’t match up to the old – Eudora, Molly Volley, Spike and Olaf? No, I didn’t think so.

But once a Peanuts fan, always a Peanuts fan I reckon, especially for those of us who empathised with Charlie Brown, life’s perennial loser. You will never know how many times I’ve quoted the Valentine’s Day line to myself.

There were a total of four full-length films made of Peanuts, for American TV, at least two of which I’ve seen, one in the cinema. Enjoyable, faithful, so far as they could be, classic cel animation. They never quite looked right, for one thing because absolutely nobody but Schulz could draw Charlie Brown, Snoopy or any of the others and have them look right, and when you consider the utter simplicity of his style and their design, that is both amazing and awesome.

But they also didn’t look right because the Peanuts gang weren’t designed for animation. They only ever existed in two planes, flat figures. They have no third dimension: look at Charlie Brown, as so many have pointed out, his arms are too short to reach his head, he can’t pull his shirt on over his head, a head that only works at certain angles.

He is perfect on the page nevertheless, because Charles Schulz was a genius. And he and Snoopy are living proof of Alan Moore’s dictum that comics cannot be translated into other media because the qualities that make them work as comics are untranslatable.

And then there’s 2015’s The Peanuts Movie, known in some countries, ours included, as Charlie Brown and Snoopy The Peanuts Movie, because apparently we are not clever enough to recall the strip’s name.

By every right, notwithstanding the sheer number of archetypal Peanuts gags the film crams in, lovingly and effectively, and without any sense of stress, this film shouldn’t work. For one thing, it is CGI animation and there is distance and depth in every scene, the characters becoming three dimensional in response to a three dimensional universe.

And for another, it breaks the cardinal rule of the Peanuts universe, the one thing that cannot and must not be broken if Peanuts is to be what it is. Charlie Brown is the loser in us all. He is all the insecurities and inadequacies and disappointments of a life, summed up in one ten-year old grotesque. He can win, but only for a time and only until the bubble bursts. He is Charles Schulz’s own, never-forgettable insecurities, fears and anonymities.

That’s especially surprising coming from a film made by, belonging to and wholly controlled by the Schulz family. Son Craig had the original idea, screenwriter grandson Bryan helped his Dad work it up, and the family made sure it never left their hands and good for them.

The CGI is an astonishment. The film covers Winter to Summer, in a town that is clean and light and bright. There’s a picture perfect weightlessness to everything, a childishness to the imagery, as if the film is taking place in a dream had by the children together, an unreally beautiful home with everything they want drawn together.

Into this spill the gang – Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy, Linus, Schroder, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie and those forgotten early stalwarts, Violet, Patty, Sherman, Franklin, Frieda and Pigpen – and oh my word but the animation is unbelievable! The characters do become three-dimensional, gaining a roundness and a solidity alien to Schulz’s vision, yet believable and, most important of all, recognisable. They are a world away from Schulz’s scratchy lines yet there’s never a moment when they seem less than the actual gang.

And somehow, in a way I can’t understand, these 3D collection of pixels manage to maintain their flatness, their visual one-dimensionality. You see them both ways, simultaneously. It’s astonishing.

The film is built around a single story arc and inevitably it’s about the little red-haired girl. The film begins with her arrival in town, moving in across the street from Charlie Brown, assigned to the same class at school. Charlie falls for her on the spot, and within the film it’s understandable (especially in one who’s a sucker for red hair). That’s the first heresy: though she’s most often seen from behind, or her face is mostly only visible in brief glimpses, the little red-haired girl is fully part of the same world as Good Ol’ Charlie Brown.

And even as he’s being as Charlie Brown as you could wish, he’s also trying to make himself over, to make her just notice him and realise he exists. But everything he does backfires. He practices up a slick magic act for the talent show but sacrifices his slot to rescue his little sister’s act when it’s on the point of a humiliating disaster. He achieves the first ever perfect score on a test, is feted and bigged up, growing in popularity in leaps and bounds, but throws it all away when he discovers the paper to be Peppermint Patty’s, not his.

Bryan Schulz is the most responsible however for leading the film away from his grandfather’s vision. he wanted the film to be about persistance, about the kid who never gave up, an inspiration to its young audience instead of a reassurance to them that they were understood. it’s what Charlie Brown does in the strip, but it’s elevated to a principle here. We’re walking towards, be prepared, people, a happy ending.

But let’s not forget the other half of this double-act, the unintended hero, the unexpected star, the random element of fantasy and pretence, Snoopy. The late Bill Melendez, who supplied the sounds that represented Snoopy andWoodstock in the other films, was cut into this movie to once again ‘be’ the unlikely pair, a genuinely touching notion. Like Schulz himself, Melendez was irreplacable and it made lovely sense not to even try.

Snoopy, of course, what else, is acting out the book he’s typing – no, not It was a Dark and Stormy Night – about his adventures as a World War 1 pilot, engaged in dogfights against the Red Baron. Like Snoopy himself, these sequences are a leftfield interruption into the film, a la Andy newman’s solo in “Something in the Air”, even more so from the brief glimpses behind the cinematic curtain to what Snoopy is acting out in the world of the kids.

But ultimately we cannot avoid that happy ending, alien though it is. People used to ask Schulz whether he had drawn, to hold back until the end, one valedictory strip where Charlie Brown at last kicks the ball, but he never did, because a happy ending would destroy everything that had gone before by introducing a note of sentimentality too far.

It’s the last day of school. Names are being drawn for summer pen-pals. Some obvious couples, like Lucy for Schroder, are built but no-one wants to write to Charlie Brown, until the little red-haired kid does. It’s a shock, an implausibility and it’s typical of our boy that, even more than the shock and the warmth, his most intense response is to ask ‘Why?’

But she’s going away for the summer, to camp. There’s time to ask her, if he can get there quickly. To do so, another unimaginable heresy is committed: the kite-eating tree surrenders a kite, and it flies Charlie Brown there in time.

To speak to the little red-haired girl. To open his mouth in her presence without fainting. To ask ‘why?’ And to be told of everything she has admired abut him throughout all the things he’s done in this film, things that backfired to his detriment, made him look like a fool and a loser, and she has seen through all of this and recognised the true impulse, the compassion, the honesty, the eagerness to help, and she honours those good intentions. And she will write. Maybe this is the Earth-2 Peanuts

It’s dihonest, it’s cheap, it’s antithetical to everything Charles Schulz’s strip stood for, but I cannot help but love it. Whether I read it or not, Peanuts was a component of my world and I mourned its loss. A world with Charlie Brown and Snoopy in it, forever immortal, is an unsatisfactory world. It has lost one of the Pillars on which worlds stand. The film at least understood that, even as it created a wish-fulfillment to end on.

And it found one last wonderful moment, as Charlie Brown is carried shoulder-high by the gang, and everything slows and stops in a tableau that fades into black and white, into flat planes, into Charles Schulz’s drawing of his kids, and I succumb to the sentimentality. For everything that is wrong, this film is still very right. Some thing are just built into you. A round-headed kid in a yellow shirt with a zigzag stripe and the world’s most improbable looking beagle – Beeeeagle! – are two of them. Good to see you both.

Uncollected Thoughts: Horace and Pete episode 1

This is a first for this blog: a post on a subject that’s been requested, in a recent comment. I’ll be upfront about it, I don’t do other people’s suggestions well, I never have. Quite why that is, I’ve never been entirely sure: a large part of it is that I’ve always been a voracious consumer of books, comics etc., and I have an individualistic taste in things, which makes me the best person to determine what I’m likely to like or not. On the other hand, I’ve always suspected that my reluctance to explore recommendations is based on a certain arrogance: if it’s any good, then I’ll choose it myself.

However, I was asked for my take on Louis CK’s web-series, Horace and Pete, co-starring Steve Buscemi, and the request came from someone entitled to special privileges, so I’ve laid hands on the entire ten-part series and, having freed myself up from finishing one current series, I’ve taken the time to watch the first episode.

After which, I really must say: thank you for the recommendation, Pete.

Horace and Pete is created, written directed and self-financed by Louis CK, whose reputation I knew but who I’d only seen when he briefly guested in a couple of second season Parks and Recreations as Leslie Knope’s police officer boyfriend. Horace and Pete are, respectively, Louis and Steve Buscemi, who start the opening episode as brothers and end it as unrelated. ‘Horace and Pete’s’ is also the name of the bar, established one hundred years ago, which is the site for the series: the bar has been owned, generation after generation, by successive Horaces and Petes: Louis CK is Horace Wichtel VIII and Horace Wichtel IX won’t even say his name, let alone speak to him.

The first thing that struck me was the opening, wordless scene. Horace comes down into the bar to start setting chairs at the tables. He punches in a number on the juke-box, which plays a generic, sixties-sounding organ-dominated instrumental with a gentle, undemanding beat to it. As Horace, who already looks downbeat and miserable, crosses from table to table, he begins to move more rhythmically, fitting his actions to the beat. Something resembling a smile starts to hover on his lips. Behind him Pete comes down into the bar, carrying a broom. He starts to sweep the floor. He sees Horace moving about, stops to look at him a moment, and falls into rhythm with him and the record. The two continue in this gentle, almost-contented vein, until the track ends.

Maybe it’s because I’m still influenced by reading Remember Jack Hoxie, with its lack of any understanding that music can be of any effect, can uplift, excite, move or just be a moment or so’s distraction from the shit going on around you, but in that moment I decided I liked these pair. I was in with them, on their side.

The next thing to strike me was how theatrical the set-up, with the fixed stage, the slow-moving dialogue, the lack of action and especially the lack of audience noise/background music, made the programme feel. That was the case all the way through, and it’s a very clear, deliberate, active choice. This isn’t television, it’s theatre. Never mind the changes of camera angle:¬†Horace and Pete is theatre to its bones, and the artificiality of the theatrical set-up, the consciousness that you are watching acting, by real-live people standing a few feet away from you, the deliberate insertion of an Intermission, covering a change of scene, is perfect for what Louis CK is doing.

He’s normally known as a comedian, and there are comedic moments in this episode, but there are no jokes. The comedy arises from the situation, it’s real and natural, it’s you or I attempting by humour to define a shitty problem. Horace and Pete is set in, around and about a bar, but it’s the anti-Cheers. The bar has its regulars, barflys, who come pouring in as soon as it opens and who hug their seats as if they are their only personal possession in the world. But they’re here to drink, not to make pithy remarks, do schticks, hold court. They have no relation with the group, they only have a relationship with their glass, and they’re only here because it’s seriously shitty out there, and they’ve all been damaged by it.

Things are bad inside the bar as well. The first episode took a very shrewd route to setting its world up, especially as it was determined to go down the 100 Bullets line where nobody sits there telling somebody else what they already know just so the audience can get clued in. The minimal plot lay in the fact that it was exactly one year since Horace VII died. Horace VIII unwillingly gave up his job as an accountant to take over, his brother Pete (who has serious mental issues kept under control by paradol, a medication that, due to insurance company complications, he is running out of) came in with him and the previous generation’s Pete became ‘Uncle Pete’ and is now the barman.

(He’s also Alan Alda playing a tour de force role as a cantankerous, grumpy, traditionalist stickler of a racist, sexist, homophobic monster of an older generation, who’s about as far from an Alan Alda character as anyone who remembers him from M.A.S.H. onwards could imagine.)

But the bar is declining so Horace and Pete’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco – this show attracts heavyweights) wants to bring the law in to close the bar down sell it and free the entire family from the misery it embodies. Which in turn enables the offensive Uncle Pete to give a brief bar history to the lawyer, Randall, and along the way out Pete as being his, not Horace VII’s, son.

Best of all though is that this scene is delivered very late on. We know what’s going on, but only after spending five-sixths of the episode putting our own pieces together about these people.

This is very intelligent, very well-acted, very serious art. It’s about things that, on all levels, can only be described as depressing. There isn’t a single life-enhancing moment in any of it, and I will be grossly disappointed if there is one in any of the remaining nine episodes. But it has the ruthless accuracy of reality about it. You can believe in every single one of these people. You might not want to meet any one of them in real life, but you know that every one of them are out there, in the real life you move through.

Which is not something you can say about most people you meet on TV.

I’m not going to blog each individual¬† episode the way I’m blogging Deep Space Nine, or at least I don’t intend to: I haven’t watched episode 2 yet so let’s see. Meet me again here when I’ve watched the full series. Not that it’s summer TV in any respect…