Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/11/2015 (650 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"It's not often you get the opportunity to start over with a clean slate," says Charlie Brown in his brand-new movie, which opened Friday in Winnipeg. "This time, things will be different."
Oh, that Charlie Brown, ever the optimist, despite all those disappearing footballs and tangled kites. Bringing the Peanuts gang to a younger generation is great. But using computer-generated 3D animation? Good grief!
When the first trailer for the movie was released, the Vulture website created a video showing the original, unabashedly two-dimensional Peanuts characters reacting with dismay. ("Oh, no, we're doomed!" "I don't think I like this, sir." "Aaugh!")
By all accounts, the movie is not that bad. It's simple, gentle and not egregiously updated. There are no trendy Shrek-style pop-culture references or product placements. The grade-schoolers remain untouched by texting and tweeting and Instagram.
And despite the terrifying "All I Do Is Win" sequence in the trailer, the movie remains faithfully loser-centric, with Charlie Brown enduring all kinds of humiliations in his futile courtship of the Little Red-Haired Girl. One reviewer suggests it plays like Inside Llewyn Davis inexplicably cast with small children.
I still feel the need to voice a small, sad, Linus-like lament for the loss of the hand-drawn 2D animation seen in A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I grew up on the rudimentary cartoon art of the early Peanuts specials. For me, that hip, old-school animated style is inescapably melded to the cool-cat Vince Guaraldi scores, the solemn, raspy children's voices, their furrowed brows, their muted, weirdly middle-aged angst.
Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip ran for almost 50 years, and at the height of its popularity was read by 355 million people in 75 countries.
Ultimately, Peanuts became so iconic and all-American that many people saw only its happiness-is-a-warm-puppy side. For some, the Charlie Brown universe remains a celebration of the Midwest in the 1950s, a simpler time with solid values, when girls wore saddle shoes and Snoopy was "America's dog." Ronald Reagan was a big Peanuts fan.
Others see in Peanuts, especially in its earlier, edgier era, the darker shadings of postwar America. Schulz's children are beset by confusions and small cruelties, consumed with worry and low-level depression. ("My anxieties have anxieties," Chuck says at one point.) And Snoopy? Far from being a boy's best friend, he's a cheerfully unrepentant narcissist.
I love Peanuts' occasional moments of grace -- the Christmas special is built around a particularly poignant one -- but I'm also drawn to that deep seam of sadness. I can see the sadness in the original strips, which Schulz created with India ink on three-ply paper, his artist's hand communicating a nervy energy that somehow connects to those anxious kids.
The 1960s Charlie Brown specials have a handcrafted feel that Schulz approvingly called "semi-animation." They are filled with abrupt gaps and awkward transitions and visual shorthand. The Peanuts Movie uses 3D computer animation to build a world that is slicker and smoother, with lusher colours and fuller forms.
But those added visual bells and whistles don't feel necessary to the Peanuts world, and sometimes they can be downright problematic. Take Linus and Charlie Brown's hairdos, which have always had an odd, old-man vibe. The new movie literalizes the incomprehensible whirl on Charlie Brown's forehead, making it into one thick, wiry black hair. It's creepy.
And Snoopy now has a slight furred texture, but really, was visual realism ever the point of Snoopy? The day I found out he was a beagle, I was absolutely floored -- and I suspect I'm not alone in that.
Call it the Polar Express rule: More life-like characters are not necessarily better. Last week, the Today show cast dressed as live-action versions of the Peanuts gang, and it was horrible. No one could tell whether Carson Daly was Linus or Gollum.
I don't want to get too grumpy about this. Traditional 2D techniques are still doing all sorts of neat-o things on television and the Internet. Plus, Charlie Kaufman has a stop-motion alienated puppet movie coming out, which should help with my mournful, archaic animation needs.
I also recognize 3D can be an amazing medium. This month marks the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, but December is also the 20th birthday of Toy Story, a computer-generated franchise that has done astonishing things.
I just wish 3D wasn't the default setting for all big animated movie projects. CG cartoons often come off like those massive, bright, shiny metal Christmas trees in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Sure, they catch your eye, but sometimes you just want that crooked, pokey little two-dimensional tree that's shedding needles.