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.