There have been countless Peanuts specials since the 1965 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and while some have been memorable (It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) and some have not aged well (It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown, with a leg-warmer-wearing Snoopy doing his best Flashdance impression), all of them were rendered in flat, 2D cel animation. Charles M. Schulz's minimalist style fit the medium of cel animation well, however, and so news of a CGI Peanuts movie raised the hackles of many fans. Purists were worried: Would transferring these characters to three dimensions junk up the simplicity of Schulz's vision? They needn't have worried. The Peanuts Movie is gently respectful to the strip's origins while it still finds ways to expand its visual possibilities as it folds the audience warmly back into its beloved little world.
While the plot is loosely gathered around a series of independent gag vignettes, giving the feel of leafing through a collection of newspaper strips, there is a main thread focusing on Charlie Brown (voiced by Noah Schnapp) and his fortuitous discovery of the Little Red-Haired Girl (Francesca Capaldi). Smitten, he embarks on a yearlong effort to impress her, a quest that's continually thwarted by a combination of his schlimazel bad luck and his innate human decency -- when it's a choice between coming to the rescue of his sister Sally (Mariel Sheets) or selfishly seizing a rare moment of the Little Red-Haired Girl's attention, good o'l Charlie Brown of course does the right thing.
People's memories of the Peanuts animated specials are sacrosanct, and so Blue Sky Studios (the same team behind Ice Age and Rio) have made many efforts to ease the transition from 2 to 3D animation, opting for a "2.5D" compromise, where bodies and objects have volume and texture (including a fleshy glow for skin tones and a felt-y, fuzzy fluff on Snoopy), but facial features and the cartoony motion lines zipping after their actions are rendered in Charles M. Schulz-style flat pen-and-ink work. They've also cast child voice actors who sound uncannily like our memories of the Christmas special. (No modern details like cellphones intrude into Peanuts-land, but there's a moment of anachronistic dissonance at the end, when the credits reveal characters with sturdy postwar names like "Sally" and "Patty" and "Marcie" are being voiced by Anastasias and Madisyns.) The end result is a worthy compromise that's true to the flavor of Schulz's original vision.
While it was also a smart choice to carry over details like music from the Vince Guaraldi Trio and the "wah-WAH-wah" trombone of adult's voices, it's unfortunate that Snoopy, who has such a rich inner monologue in Schulz's strip, is still stuck with the squalling noises that no real beagle has ever made (vocalized post-humously from recordings by Charlie Brown specials director Bill Melendez.) But Snoopy gets his due in a vividly rendered subplot about his fantasies as a World War I flying ace smitten with daring French poodle aviatrix Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth, credited for a "vocal performance" that's barely a few scant squeaks and purrs). The animation team really gets to flex their 3D muscles in swooping, thrilling aerial dogfights over mountains and rivers, with Snoopy perched atop his red doghouse in hot pursuit of the Red Baron.
Even though Charlie Brown never stops struggling with his lot in life as a loveable loser, so much about The Peanuts Movie is done right that the only audience members with grounds for complaint are die-hard comics devotees, who might grumble that the heavy influence of the animated specials soft-pedals the existential angst that gave the original newspaper strip its tang. That may be so, but good grief! The Peanuts Movie is a sweet, appealing and harmless holiday romp, suitable for even the youngest moviegoers but with a little something for everyone.