I recently got to go on a tour of Blue Sky Studios, the animation company responsible for Ice Age. Their latest feature The Peanuts Movie just had its home entertainment release, now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD. Blue Sky hosted a meet-and-greet with director Steve Martino and several members of the cast, including Alex Garfin (Linus), Marelik Walker (Franklin), and the terrifyingly named Venus Omega Schultheis (Peppermint Patty). I even got to meet Snoopy! He was there, in person!
Oh, you… you want the picture with the cute kids.
That’s fine, I guess. I’m not hurt.
Martino gave a long presentation on the challenges of bringing the Peanuts characters to life. He self-identifies as a lifelong Peanuts fan and says that doing this right was “a lot of pressure.” Charles Schulz’s son Craig Schulz, and grandson Bryan Schulz, were both involved from the very beginning, also serving as writers on the film. Martino said his number one directive in the animation style was to “find the pen line.” They went to great lengths to preserve the integrity of the character’s appearances in their 3D models. The process involved sorting through literally thousands of individual strips for each character, in an attempt to arrive at their most basic and classic depictions.
It was particularly challenging building 3D models for characters like Snoopy because, as Martino said, “Snoopy is a Picasso.”
If you look at a lot of the Peanuts characters, they really only work as 2D models. Snoopy is a particularly horrifying example, as his face is usually drawn onto the side of his head.
Having a 3D Snoopy who could move his head around in real-time meant constructing multiple head models and switching between them for complicated scenes. The final product is a mixture of 3D animation and pen lines that really does an excellent job of capturing Schulz’s style.
You can see the individual pen lines even better in the way they layered moving parts, such as the dust cloud that follows Pig-Pen everywhere.
To animate something like rain drops, rather than constructing their own version digitally, they literally took rain drops drawn by Schulz in the comics and directly brought them to the big screen.
I’m not here just to talk about production trivia. I also got to interview some of the cast members and listen to some of their wisdom.
Alex Garfin, voice of Linus, claims a “balanced meal” is “a cookie in one hand and a brownie in the other.” His mother disagrees with this controversial position, quoted as saying, “If you’re going to post that picture, please make sure people know I feed him very well.”
Overall, honestly, the most exciting and interesting thing for me was listening to Steve Martino talk. I will admit that I came into The Peanuts Movie with low expectations, because I am a cynical misanthrope who assumes the worst about everything. The first time I saw trailers for The Peanuts Movie I thought, “This is clearly a nostalgia cash-grab.” Martino repeatedly impressed me with how sincere and genuine he was with his love for the source material. You could really tell it was important to him that he did justice to these characters and paid tribute to the heart of the original comics in a way that would bring their timeless values to a new generation.
In his words, the thematic spine of the movie is showing off the best qualities Charlie Brown has always had. The heart of the character is his perseverance and his kindness. There is humor to be found in Charlie Brown’s failures, but the movie doesn’t dump on him simply because it’s funny to see someone fail. It’s important that Charlie Brown is a screw-up in most things he tries, because he’s meant to show kids that none of that stuff really matters. At the end of the day, no matter how badly he ruins everything, people have a lot of respect for Charlie Brown. They respect him because he’s decent and fair and doesn’t give up, no matter what life throws at him. That’s what’s important. In Martino’s (paraphrased) words, “What you do for a friend, how you conduct yourself day to day. These are the things that make you a winner, not a gold medal.”
I feel like I should say something negative here so you know this isn’t a promotional fluff piece. Here we go. Director Steve Martino seems like a great guy, but the way that man puts together a powerpoint presentation is psychotic. Early in the presentation he said, “I had three big ideas coming into this movie as a director,” and then he showed us a slide with the big number “1” and his first idea. I kept on waiting and waiting, the entire length of the presentation, but “2” never came. Who does that, I ask you people? Is that normal? To make a numbered slide for the first item in a list, and then never address the rest of the list? Again, great guy, I’m just saying. The man belongs in a hospital for the criminally insane.
Here’s the point I want to make about The Peanuts Movie. The #1 criticism I’ve been seeing about it, everywhere I’ve looked, is that it’s just not very ambitious. That strikes me as a weird criticism because… wouldn’t we hate it if it was? In a way, I think the movie’s simplicity is its greatest strength. They knew that a Peanuts movie didn’t have to be Charlie Brown going to space or saving the world of traveling through time. The movie is funny and engaging, but it doesn’t feel like they have to rattle off pop-culture references every minute or put Charlie Brown in a dress because they’re desperate to get a laugh. That stuff isn’t Charlie Brown, and he does not need to be those things to stay relevant. The old gags are just as funny to kids today as they were when they were first printed. You should hear kids laughing in theaters when Lucy pulls away that football. The message about remembering to be kind no matter what the world throws at you is still something lots of people (myself included) need to hear. The Peanuts Movie might not have set out with very big ambitions, but it does an expert job of accomplishing what it wanted to do.