Valerian et Laureline: 3 – Earth in Flames

‘Earth in Flames’ picks up where ‘The City of Shifting Waters’ ended, with the arrival of Valerian, Laureline and Sun Rae at Xombul’s base in and under Yellowstone Park, Americana at its finest. There we are quickly introduced to Schroder, a brilliant scientist and the only one on Earth of our era associated with Xombul, grateful for the opportunity to run wild on his inventing whilst never mistaking his situation as anything other than that of prisoner. Schroder, incidentally, does not have a mop of blond hair and a tendency to sit at toy pianos but instead looks like Jerry Lewis at his goofiest.
We’re still in the series’ early days yet, so it’s no surprise, however disappointing, to see it take a chauvinist turn. Valerian’s the hero, he’s brave and resourceful, and Laureline is the spunky girl sidekick, so when Xombul wants to enforce Valerian being his right hand man, he does so by submitting our favourite redhead to a shrinking ray, intent keeping her in his pocket, literally, whilst Val follows orders.
But Schroder wants out and, as soon as he disables the robots, big brave Val breaks loose, tackles and captures Xombul, only too late to keep a furious Laureline from being shrunk to about six inches tall. Laureline is angry at her treatment, putting the blame where it truly lies, on her creators – this always happens to the girls! – as a metafictional warning that if they don’t sharpen up pretty quickly, she’s going to take action about it.
However, for now it’s everyone back to the spatiotemporal craft to return the renegade Dictator to Galaxity, whilst Val does his best not to cause his colleague to fall off his shoulder. Sun Rae’s going to stay behind and take over the base, and Schroder’s going to stay behind because he belongs to Sun Rae now, until he breaks out himself. Unfortunately, not all the robots have been disabled and, in the shooting, Val drops Xombul, but not Laureline, who starts growing of her own accord as if Christin and Mezieres have worked out they’ve done a dumb thing.
Naturally, she grows faster than her clothes, though the proprieties are decently observed.
The story opens out in its middle section, as the runaways decide to put distance between themselves and Xombul. This takes us out into America the Big Country, the wild open, a favourite real-life setting for Mezieres, and the ever-increasing effects of the series of disasters that will, so soon, shut Earth down in its Modern Dark Age. Heat and flames, fleeing and despair. Civilisation has already broken down, and only the old-timer, the phlegmatic westerner, the self-reliant self-image of America’s psyche, knows how to live in these times. He provides Laureline with clothes that suit their environment (and which cover more than about 30% of her) and kits out Val likewise. They ride off to look for America.
What they find is the land breaking down as fast as the country. The old-timer stays, in his element, the Old West rising to help the people, like the troubleshooter of old, only not with guns but skills, skills to gather and hold tight a herd that will feed people for at least a time. It’s an apocalyptic time treated in a determinedly non-apocalyptian manner for which Christin and Mezieres are to be praised.
We return to the plot with a deft jab at America and its exceptionalism in a more contemporary context as the agents find a military base, abandoned by all but its Commander, and he’s abandoned it too metaphorically, choosing drinks, smokes and burgers over his duty, and easy prey for a practical Laureline to slap around. Once loaded up with weaponry, it’s back to Yellowstone, and Xombul to be dealt with finally.
Once they arrive, Xombul’s defences are raised to greet them, It’s a two-point attack, Laureline laying down covering fire to distract from Val’s heavy-artillery attack with a bazooka – when a grand moose can be got from immediately in front of the sights. These are the touches I love, the moment of comedy slipped in in a quasi-bathetic manner which reflects the non-fictional natural obstructiveness of the Universe (like Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder Gang as opposed to his Parker hard-boiled crime stories).
But then the creators let things slip back a little as Val goes in alone after Xombul, leaving Laureline behind. However, the Dictator has fled, using the President’s personal rocket ship to relocate to a secret satellite in Earth orbit, from where he plans to rebuild. How can Val and Laureline follow him now? By Schroder’s space/time ship of course, if it worked, that is.
Which is where future and past turn in upon themselves and meet. Val’s knowledge of spatiotemporal principles and mechanics, with Laureline’s assistance, enables him to bypass Schroder’s lack of comprehension, his misguidances and lack of material to produce Earth’s first, ramshackle, unsleek, held-together-by-spit-and-baling-wire Spatiotemporal machine, and undertake that first ever flight.
To the space station, and to Valerian’s final confrontation with Xombul. Who’s built himself a space/time machine from twentieth century plans that he doesn’t understand will not work, because it cannot work. And instead of jumping into time, Xombul is destroyed, his component atoms spread far beyond recovery.
Killing Xombul off this soon was a very sensible idea: the series is still a little rough and ready, and relies too much on foursquare Hard SF, for all that there are moments when the picture painted hangs at an angle. The last thing it needed was a perpetual enemy. Without Xombul, the series had time to grow, to cultivate a sense of the alien, the infinite possibilities of the Universe. Without a recurring foe, it could stop and look around, and it would.
Cannily, our principal pair knock out Schroder and Sun Rae whilst assisting them to escape from the destruction of the Yellowstone base. And they dismantle the space/time ship and retrofit Schroder’s inaccurate workings so he can’t retro-engineer such a ship prematurely. And then it really is back home, but with a side-trip first. After all, no matter when they get back, Valerian and Laureline will be sent on a new mission inside an hour…

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 and Woodstock 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 girl 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 about 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 dishonest, 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 out Charlie Brown and Snoopy in it, forever immortal though they be, 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.