The most ominous aspect of the forthcoming Peanuts 3-D Blue Sky Studio movie is not the artwork. Though, don't get me wrong, the artwork looks dreadful. Charles Schulz's cartoons varied over the years from deceptively sleek pen lines in his early days to pleasingly shaky dumpiness after his stroke, but flatness and minimalism was always central to his aesthetic—even in the animated features.
Blue Sky dispenses with that, choosing instead to turn Charlie Brown and the gang into bloated, uncanny-valley inflatables. The teaser trailer released earlier this year, in which the grandiose earth turns into Charlie Brown's head to John Williams-esque fanfare, seems nauseatingly apropos. A world so small that the grass had to be drawn in side-view and adults couldn't fit in the frame has been blown up to Hollywood proportions. It reminds me of that terrifying (NSFW) Charles Ray sculpture, where the nude toddlers are scaled up to adult size—hulking and oh-so-wrong.
So, yes, the art is irredeemably ugly and callow. But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that, in these just-released stills, everyone is smiling.
Peanuts' bleakness can be, and has been, overstated. The strip could be wry and goofy and just downright odd. At various points in his 50 year career, Schulz staged slapstick blanket battles between Linus and Snoopy, ran a week of strips where Charlie Brown tried to convince Lucy that birds do in fact fly south for the winter, and created an insane, escalating adventure in which Peppermint Patty ends up in dog-training school. Much of the strips' humor was based around clunkily joyful and joyfully clunky wordplay, with Linus getting hung up on becoming a "wild-eyed fanatic" because (one is forced to suspect) Schulz thought that "wild-eyed fanatic" sounded amusing. And maybe also because wild-eyed Linus was fun to draw.
But while the characters in Peanuts certainly smiled a lot over the years, there's still something very wrong about seeing those stills, with all the characters everywhere beaming, and Charlie Brown the focal point for what looks like adoration. Peanuts was often happy, but it was never blandly, uniformly chipper. Schulz could do sweet, but he did bitter as well, and that bitter ranged from neurosis (Linus's panicked fear that he won't be able to remember his lines for the Christmas play) to outright despair. Charlie Brown is the one most associated with Peanuts' bleak vision, and his lunchtime vigil contemplating the Little Red-Headed Girl for 12 endless panels of boredom and indecision, concluding with a punchline, but with a promise of more of the same, is undeniably brutal.
But other characters face their trials as well. There's Lucy's never-ending pursuit of the deliberately cruel Schroeder, or the strip where Peppermint Patty realizes she'll never be as pretty as the Little Red-Headed Girl and Charlie Brown will never notice her. Even the indefatigable Snoopy faces repetitive defeat at the hands of the Red Baron and various publishing houses.
These moments of sadness don't make Peanuts a sad strip; rather, they give depth to the humor, and vice versa. One of my favorite sequences in Peanuts is a series in which Linus pats birds on the head. As he explains with patient, almost Biblical deliberation, "I have found that whenever I get really depressed, patting birds on the head cheers me up … The birds also seem to like it." Lucy, though, is having none of it; patting birds on the head is weird, and "There are other ways to cure depression…you don't have to pat birds on the head!" After which declaration the adorable, big-headed, identical birds stalk after her, climb one on top of the other, and kick her in the butt.
The strip is quite silly—patting birds on the head as a therapeutic exercise seems like it could have been invented by Monty Python. But the silliness is in contrast to, or built upon, a recognition of sadness. The image of Linus patting the tiny birds, with a sparsely but elegantly drawn tree off to the side, seems devotional—a contemplative, loving communion with nature, interrupted by Lucy's angry speech bubble, which obscures part of the tree. Linus and the birds smiling together is meaningful because smiling is not necessarily the default. And Linus's devastated frown at the end—a beautifully quivering line—has all the punch of an innocent joy callously smooshed.
In contrast, the imagery for the upcoming 3-D film is relentlessly, vapidly upbeat. The trailer is all goofy hijinks, with Charlie Brown as the straight-man to Snoopy's manic-pixie-dream-puppy—there's no hint of the weird beagle so committed to his schizophrenic dream world he can't even remember his owner's name and simply views him as a "round-headed kid" who fills his supper bowl. The stills are equally alien to the spirit of Schulz's strip. Charlie Brown stands in a movie theater dispensing popcorn happily to the delighted laughter of his peers; Charlie Brown and his trusty dog are lifted heroically on the shoulders of their friends; Charlie Brown casts a knowing, happy, confident glance over his shoulder as he carries a flower through the snow. It's like Peanuts got turned into a series of poorly designed Hallmark cards.
It's inevitable that someone at some point was going to make awful art out of Peanuts. The strip is too tied to Schulz's particular genius to work without him, but it's also too popular, and too much of a goldmine, for philistine marketers to leave alone now that the creator is dead. If you love Peanuts, go read 50 years of comics, or watch the original animations. This will only break your heart—or rather, having no heart itself, it won't.