Another fell Ice Age demon was unleashed this past weekend by Blue Sky Studios, who rely on the franchise for blockbuster potential to pursue their other, more artistically valuable productions. Let’s guess which ones I’m looking at today!
The Peanuts Movie
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in Blue Sky Studios’ recreation of Charles Schulz’ often depressed, even aching comic strip Peanuts. The most disarming particular of The Peanuts Movie is its probing, even granular air of defiant melancholy, with dispirited grayness infused into even the most cloud-penetrating rays of light. In relation to the normative mainstream fare, The Peanuts Movie exists in a state of defiant anti-bliss, reprimanding the sonorous, “more is more” sensibility of most animated films, which all seem to cotton to the need to convince audiences that the world is one step closer to ending with every near-apocalyptic frame. In comparison to those digital-age sugar rushes, The Peanuts Movie has an analog soul; it’s lighter, more intimate, and as a not-so-paradoxical corollary, more world-challenging in its own way. With a script by Cornelius Uliano and Brian and Craig Schulz (son and grandson of Charles), this is among the least “busy” mainstream animated films of the decade. That it is also among the handful of computer 3D animated films in the past decade with an interest in how to warp and disrupt the computer-animated aesthetic in adventurous new ways, relying on it as a fount of possibility rather than a circumstance dictated by marketing needs, is just the icing on the cake.
Most animated features – especially American ones – expend all of their energy whooping and hollering and tympanically raising a racket while also throttling their narratives with sudden-onset, last-act layers of ersatz drama (all pitched at the world-ending, maxi-packed level the comedy and adventure are). In comparison, The Peanuts Movie chooses to take low-slung melancholy out for a walk over the long-haul, rather than doubling-down on the orchestra and the canted frames at the last minute to enhance the drama; it earns the drama, rather than forcing it. The specter of Schulz lingers not only in the film’s narrative and its animation, but its tone. With Charlie Brown head over heels for the new red haired girl in town, the structure of the piece is zippy and yet serene, with Brown’s attempts to woo her or convince her of his childlike might continuously trounced and scorched by accidents of circumstance that most animated films – most films of any variety – are afraid to entangle themselves in. This is a wry film, not really a funny one, but it isn’t usually trying to be.
Throughout, the film wrings the episodic format of Schulz’ comic strip for a cosmic query on the circular, perpetual-motion nature of failure and success. Each of Brown’s attempts to succeed, for a while at least, are catalyzed in desire and threatened almost immediately by Brown’s not-exactly-Casanova incompetence. Failure is interrupted by the possibility of future success, the thirst to continue to try and remain curious about one’s own capabilities. And Success is in turn disturbed, in part, by failure, which in this film is simmered down to a level of unperturbed happenstance, making this the rare animated film with a wink toward the way these fluctuating waves of possibility and failure are simply the filigrees of everyday life, rather than the corollary to some sudden crisis. It’s a very domesticated film, which might sabotage it if not for the rebellious animation style or the fact that, simply put, so many animated features are simply afraid to domesticate themselves in the first place. As such, the domestication, the insular children-just-being-children tone that sidesteps capital-N Narrative, actually sidewinds into a kind of rebellion from the norm anyway.
The specter of curiosity – curiosity about other worlds, other people, other visions of the self – is kindled as much as tormented by the film’s dexterous interplay of flighty emotional dreaming and a more tough-love, hard-luck reality. There’s something refreshing about a world perpetually on holiday (as the most undying memories of the Peanuts characters, all holiday specials, will attest to) and yet still somehow beset by the emotional melancholy of everyday living and the need to dream to escape from said doldrums. The Peanuts Movie isn’t European miserabilism though; as pitiful as Charlie Brown’s battered and bruised emotional persistence might be, it’s never pathetic. Every failure is underwired by possibility, every mishap an excuse for new visions of the future; emotions don’t interrupt one another like mortal antagonists, preferring instead to exist in tentative, augmented dialectical harmony with melancholy and happiness fulfilling one another in unison.
As torrentially moving as Pixar’s same-year wellspring of necessary depression Inside Out was, the sadness in The Peanuts Movie is, if not more nuanced, undeniably more lived-in; rather than literalizing everything by making the film “about” emotion, the film instead allows varying sentiments and mental states to infuse their way into the narrative, rather than being the crux of it. Even the slightest gestures – most notably the indecipherable verbal scrawl of the adults that the children render themselves perky-eared in hope of clarifying – suggest children on the daily trudge yet somehow enlivened by the possibility of understanding other worldviews. The conclusion, a little staid and obvious and not nearly saddened enough, nonetheless reflects the necessity of understanding that one’s vision of “self-improvement” might be deceptively limited and rooted in cultural standards that other people just don’t acclimatize to. Listening, rather than acting, can be a principle of life.
And this is without the animation, a 3D reinterpretation (more than a simulacrum) of the classically static style of the comic strip and the animated specials; the CGI isn’t an enemy of classicism here, but a wistful hairpin turn toward a new variation on the static swivels and herky-jerky casualness of the original style. Pastel, soft-colored hues undercut the emotional distress and suggest a dreamlike, haze-infused world. And the film’s willingness to commit to a primarily 2D plane of action, a theoretically alienating stylistic gesture often stigmatized in the animation realm, is startlingly radical in its desire to sacrifice clarity and concision for a jittery vision of childlike-being where the low-frame count suggests movement interspersed with stillness, rather than the constant graceful mania of nominally more technically adept motion pictures.
Throughout, Bill Melendez’ cackling intrusions as Charlie Brown’s raffish rapscallion of a dog Snoopy provide comic interludes (Melendez’ voice is resurrected from vocal clips throughout the years of having voiced the character). His dreams of serving as the WWI pilot The Red Baron, throttling the film into a more unrestrained 3D realm, are candy-coated and most likely to recollect images of Blue Sky’s other, more manic works. But in those films the style was the norm, an assumption of life. Here it is repurposed as an escape, a liberating principle, imagination literally installing a more fluid and some would say “complete” animation style. It’s a beautiful marriage of fluctuating form to the film’s content, an exploration of dreaming and desire through animation that literally breaks from its own preordained reality stylistically to circumvent the fences of life itself.
Here, Blue Sky kicks the bigger-is-better animation realm like a bad habit and inlays clandestine referrals to that more commonplace 3D style to ameliorate the nominal challenge this film presents to the animation norm, all the while transforming the shift between styles into a gauntlet of sometimes thoughtful, sometimes buoyant rebellion from everyday life. Most animated features are violently assaultive in their deluge of emotions, raging like a hurricane wrapped up in a sandstorm obliterated by a volcano; in comparison, rather than blowing its top and erupting in fire, The Peanuts Movie has the courage to exist in a perpetual, and oddly life-affirming, state of already-charred, thawed-out emotional reflection.
Horton Hears a Who!
Compassionate, if a little cautious, Blue Sky Studios’ Horton Hears a Who! follows the contours of its original text’s spirit but warps the letters to more malleable places, not so much expanding the narrative to trivializing “big” heights as reveling in the possibility for tangential refrains and surrealistic divorces from the straight story. Compared to the manic, sometimes maniacal Ice Age pictures, it’s improbably sensitive and even reticent in its ways. Directors Steve Martino and Jimmy Hayward (the latter of which followed this effort with its natural corollary, a devious mangling of the live-action Jonah Hex into a near-surrealistically maladjusted miscreant) are more conspicuous in their choices than the free-wheeling, please-everyone, mile-a-minute pictures the studio is known for. But they don’t restrict themselves to ascetic maturity either. This isn’t a timid film, but it is a more thoughtful one, and certainly a more valuable work than any other feature-length Dr. Seuss adaptation thus far.
Largely, this is because it uniquely cottons to the spry simplicity and courteously allegorical nature of Dr. Seuss’ writing, as well as his clever but not tendentious wordplay. Nothing in this film is a patch on the sly, limber insinuation of Chuck Jones’ 1966 version of The Grinch, but then, nullifying a film by contextualizing it against one of the final masterworks of the finest American animation director in history isn’t exactly fair. Especially when we can also contextualize it in relation to the ‘00s two other mainstream Seuss adaptations, the dementedly extrapolated, over-complicated Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat. In comparison, Horton Hears a Who! is practically Citizen Kane, although – with elephant Horton as the protagonist – it is closer to the second-half where Welles was artificially fattening himself in a ‘40s-styled “Things to Come” premonition of his soon-to-be portly real world self.
The spillover effect of Horton’s straightforwardness is a cartoonish cuddliness that is sincere if slightly suspect in its inability to delve into Seuss’ strangeness – an early anime-inspired bit is the lone moment of animation experimentation. Which makes it more of a relative success than a genuine triumph; well, the failure to explore is one issue, but the script’s problematic habit of amplifying the text to the point of apocalyptic oblivion (as most American animation films are wont to do) is in a tight race for first place on the problem front. But the genial, appropriately malleable quality of the CG animation – avoiding the kind of barren technical-showpiece photo-realism that the Ice Age films strive for – is typically on the right side of the “distracting” vs. “energizing” divide.
Especially because, more often than not, this is still appropriately pitched at the level of children’s fable about an elephant named Horton (Jim Carrey) saving a small town on a speck, Whoville (headed by their Mayor played by Steve Carell in this case), from certain destruction. In turn, their legitimacy as people and Horton’s dogged, some-would-say senseless humanism and determination save him from social annihilation when society tries to deny him his quest and brand him the outcast. Equality and humanity for all, essentially.
The film doesn’t exactly catalyze itself with the delightful malapropism-wellspring that was Seuss’ writing, and it is too visually over-worked to always pause for the wispy, whimsical grace notes in Seuss’ writing. But the supple, lithe animation assuages the film’s busyness, at least compared to the leaden malfeasance of the grotesque production design extravaganzas in those earlier Seuss films. Here, unlike those embarrassing features, largeness isn’t inherently a corollary to imagination, and there’s a fluidity and spry comic sensibility to the pseudo-slapstick that helps the humanism of Seuss’ tale rather than nullifying it. The film’s version of festivity is too manic for its own good, but not – compared to the Ice Age motion pictures – overbearingly so.
Some of it veers into kiddie post-modernism that was over-baked even in 2008 (a Henry Kissinger impression, for instance, in the worst sort of “here’s one for the parents” bits you can imagine). And, now that I think of it, the film doesn’t exactly pull double duty to question or redress Jim Carrey’s sometimes mortifying circa-1994 riffing and mugging. Sometimes, he alone veers toward flattening a character whose undying humanism and simplicity of feeling is his trademark, but he doesn’t stage a complete upheaval of Seuss’ almost-silent humanity. Without turning it into a very special episode, Horton is able to preserve the morality of its source intact, if not untested. You could call it fair-weather Seuss, kindling the spirit of the good doctor when it feels like it, although not exactly willing to get out of bed to brave the storm of actually pursuing the opportunities latent within.