Friday, November 6, 2015


Opening this weekend:

 The Peanuts MovieCharlie Brown is trying to fly a kite in winter, on the theory that the Kite-Eating Tree will be dormant. The chaos that ensues is interrupted by the arrival of a new kid moving in across the street from his house. This turns out be a Little Red-Haired Girl, and once Our Hero gets a look at her, he’s in love.

The trouble is, we get a look at her too. It’s true that the Little Red-Haired Girl was shown, very ill-advisedly, in a couple of the later Peanuts movie and TV cartoons, but she was kept offstage in the strip, and she should have been here, too. Showing the Little Red-Haired Girl is like showing Maris on Frasier or Howard’s Mom on The Big Bang Theory or Charlie on Charlie’s Angels or Carlton the Doorman on Rhoda.

This feature version of the greatest American comic strip—and one of the great achievements in 20th-Century literature—is very cute. It’s visually inventive from beginning to end. It has good values at its core. And it doesn’t vulgarize its source material, at least not too much—not nearly as much, certainly, as some of the terrible Peanuts TV cartoons that were made while Charles M. Schultz was alive, presumably with his blessing.

But The Peanuts Movie is still more miss than hit, or at least it was for me. It could be that I’m too close to Peanuts—the strip is a big part of why I fell in love with reading, and I still take my volumes down from the shelf frequently. I’ve been reading and rereading the best vintages of Peanuts (roughly the late ‘50s to the mid ’70s) all my life, and this movie, produced by Craig Schultz (son of Charles) from a story of his devising, doesn’t feel like Peanuts to me. It’s almost Peanuts.

The misstep with the Little Red-Haired Girl isn’t the only one, alas. There’s too much rich texture—to Lucy’s hair, to Charlie Brown’s shoes, to the countryside over which Snoopy flies in search of the Red Baron. Peanuts was an austere world of lines and dots and stock phrases from which Schultz wrung an astonishing half-century’s worth of variations; this movie tries to fill in the details he let our minds fill in.

More disappointingly, The Peanuts Movie turns Charlie Brown from a mythic figure—a loser who strives mightily against his fate as a loser, and doesn’t overcome it—into a standard kids-movie underdog who triumphs. It’s true that he triumphs for the best of reasons—his selflessness and honesty—but it still robs him of his neurotic complexity and his pained, unrecognized heroism.

“Winning is great,” Schultz once observed, “but it isn’t funny.” The unflinching moral of Peanuts is that some people really are born losers, and that this sucks for them, but it doesn’t mean that their lives are without value. The first Peanuts movie, 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, ended on this note, but it’s not the sort of thing that the makers of a big-budget contemporary animated movie can embrace.

This, maybe, is why the meandering story lacks tension and emotional weight. When the Charlie Brown of the strip or the earlier TV cartoons said “Rats!” or was told “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown!” it landed like a blow. The Peanuts Movie isn’t a disgrace, but it pulls its punches. It’s in 3-D, but it has less depth than a line drawing.

SpectreJames Bond, it could be argued, is sort of the anti-Charlie Brown: confident, assured, decisive, in command, and always a winner with the ladies, Red-Haired and otherwise. It’s only since Daniel Craig took over the role that the Bond movies have begun to seriously explore the idea that he’s no less neurotic or unhappy for all that.

This new one takes 007 from Mexico City to Rome to Austria to Tangier and back to London, chasing down a final tip from the late M (Judi Dench) that leads to an old enemy (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile the new M (Ralph Fiennes) is struggling to keep a bureaucrat from shutting down the Double-0 program and, incidentally, turning the world into one big cyber-surveillance police state. Q (Ben Wishaw) and Moneypenny (charming Naomie Harris) get caught up in the intrigue this time too.

Watching the old Bond pictures, with their excesses and chauvinisms, used to feel like a Paleolithic indulgence—like letting yourself enjoy something that was bad for you, and probably bad for the world. The Bonds featuring Craig, with his wearily amused old-shoe face and his effortless poise, seemed to be trying for more emotional and moral depth.

Until this one, that is. Despite the relevance of the supposed theme to current civil rights concerns, these are old-fashioned Bond antics—preposterously overscaled set-piece action scenes, women succumbing to 007’s charms, urbane courtesies between Bond and his enemies. It’s also way overlong.

Having said that, I mostly enjoyed Spectre anyway. Director Sam Mendes doesn’t ask us to take the proceedings too seriously—though it’s less overtly facetious, it’s not much less cornball than the Roger Moore Bonds—so I just enjoyed it for its old-fashioned movie serial silliness.

Also, Monica Bellucci appears as an assassin’s widow with whom Bond hooks up. It’s a brief role, but a little Monica Bellucci is better than no Monica Bellucci, I always say.

Plus, the title sequence features a really cool octopus.


  1. And thanks to both of you for just being you!!