Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Peppermint Patty will return to the silver screen in November 2015, timing that coincides with the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, perhaps the most beloved cartoon in television history. But how will the new feature film — with 3-D, CG animation — compare to the hand-drawn charms of that 1965 small-screen classic? Or to the Charles Schulz comic strip that possessed an especially elusive brand of whimsy?
When Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip premiered in October 1950, it couldn’t have been more different from the comic strips stacked around it — among them Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, and Roy Crane’s Captain Easy — and maybe that’s why the initial public response could be summed up as a national shrug. That changed, of course, and the strip became the untouchable but beloved titan of its medium appearing in 2,600 newspapers in 21 languages reaching a collective readership north of 350 million.
The brand remains a powerhouse (Schulz ranked with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe as far as posthumous moneymakers in pop culture), which set the stage for the film being made by Fox Animation’s Blue Sky Studios, the Connecticut team behind the Ice Age hit films and Horton Hears a Who. To get some long-view perspective on the project and the property, we reached out to Andrew Farago, curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and asked if CG will work for Peanuts.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s hard to get your arms around the singular and sustained success of Peanuts because it’s hard to find a comparison to it. Like Carson or Cronkite, Schulz had his own spot in the pipeline and that doesn’t happen now, really.
Andrew Farago: It’s hard to imagine any comic strip taking hold today the way that Peanuts has for several generations. Any 8- or 80-year-old knows what a security blanket is, or who Peppermint Patty’s best friend is, or “Good Grief!” and “Curse you, Red Baron!” Charles Schulz was beloved by millions — and that’s a conservative number — worldwide, and everyone knows Charlie Brown and Snoopy. If Schulz had been more comfortable in the public eye, he could have been another Walt Disney in terms of universal celebrity. But he was always about the work, and letting his characters speak for him, and I get the impression that’s exactly how he wanted it.
Schulz died in the hours before his farewell strip was delivered to doorsteps, adding a poignant ending to his career. That also made it seem impossible to hand the strip or the characters off to someone else.
AF: There really was no heir apparent to Schulz when he announced his retirement, since no one strip had that kind of circulation, history, and admiration among the general public and Schulz’s fellow cartoonists. The newspaper’s place in the typical American household is significantly different than it was a generation ago, and it’s hard to see another comic strip being that much of a cultural touchstone ever again. Maybe if Bill Watterson had stuck with Calvin and Hobbes for another decade and had been remotely interested in building any kind of media empire, but Schulz’s passing truly was the end of an era.
The Peanuts holiday cartoons age quite well — they seem to harmonize with Wes Anderson movies in mind, somehow, but I’m not sure I can explain that. Are those cartoons the “handshake” moment for a new audience coming to Peanuts?
AF: A Charlie Brown Christmas is just a perfect half-hour of television, and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is one of those amazing specials that seems to reveal something new almost every time I see it. Those have been airing annually for nearly 50 years now, and for most school-age kids, those specials are likely to be their introduction to Peanuts. I’m pretty sure I saw the specials before reading the paperback strip collections, which led me to the newspaper comics page, although I might have had some of the toys and merchandise earlier than that. I was introduced to most of my favorite comic books as a kid through TV shows and movies, come to think of it.
The decision to make a movie with CG animation and in 3-D is interesting. Peanuts to me is inherently 2-D art, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, Japanese Superflat, and Warhol. Are you surprised by the decision or skeptical at all?
AF: When you’re translating a work to another medium, I think creators feel a need to make sure that old and new fans get an experience they can’t get otherwise. If you’ve got a 2-D comic strip that you can turn into a live-action movie or render in CG animation, it’s fun to see something that looks completely different than the source material. I love the Fleischer Studios Popeye cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, but getting Jules Feiffer to write a screenplay for a Robert Altman-directed film with Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl? How could you pass up an opportunity like that? With something like Peanuts that’s so near and dear to so many of us, I’d almost rather see a radical departure like this, since it will draw fewer direct comparisons to the comic strip.
With movies, story is king. In this case, the “story” was never as important as emotional connection that readers had to the artwork and to the characters through the amazingly expressive artwork. Do you think a 21st century screen might be too demanding for a comic strip that could announce the arrival of autumn with a leaf and an airy squiggle?
AF: No matter how the movie does at the box office, we’ll always have the Peanuts comic strip. Fantagraphics Books has been reprinting the strip in its entirety dating back to the first one in 1950, and as long as the movie reminds people about the comic strip and the man behind it, I’ll be happy. There’s a great early Peanuts strip where Charlie Brown and Patty find her parents’ record collection and are amused by an album featuring the song Old Rockin’ Chair’s Got Me. They sit and listen to the song, and Charlie Brown asks in the final panel, “What in the world is a ‘rocking chair’?” as they’re surrounded by the latest new-fangled 1950s furniture. That humor gave way to jokes about hula hoops, transistor radios, and countless other fads over the next five decades, but the characters and their personalities, those stories are timeless.