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Review

'The Peanuts Movie' gives little grief as it straddles old and new

The Peanuts gang of Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Schroeder, Franklin, Snoopy and all the rest have come to represent a spirit of nostalgic Americana but also a world of emotional nuance not initially expected in a story about children.

In the 65 years since Charles M. Schulz first published a Charlie Brown comic strip, the characters have become archetypes of struggle and perseverance. Or, as Charlie Brown says in the new "The Peanuts Movie," he has "a serious case of inadequacy." Part of the characters' enduring appeal has been that, deep down, many of us know those feelings as well. Even ever-sunny Ronald Reagan is known to have sent Schulz a note saying he too identified with Charlie Brown.

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The movie doesn't try to modernize the story — there are no cellphones or worrying about WiFi passwords — opting instead to try to bring out matters that are more constants of childhood development. The movie is pleasant and charming, but when making a big-screen adaptation of a beloved classic and genuine touchstone for generations, adequate doesn't feel like quite enough. The movie isn't some kind of disservice to the legacy of Charles Schulz, but it also feels unnecessary.

The story covers part of a school year as Charlie Brown pines for a new neighbor and classmate he knows only as the Little Red-Haired Girl. Along the way his No. 1 obstacle is himself, as he battles his own self-doubt, as when he proclaims, "She's something and I'm nothing."

There are numerous digressions — a few too many — as his faithful dog, Snoopy, fantasizes about being a WWI pilot squaring off against his enemy, the Red Baron.

Directed by Steve Martino, whose credits include codirecting the adaptation "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," the film is created by Blue Sky Studios, the company behind such movies as "Ice Age" and "Rio" and written by Craig Schulz, Bryan Schulz and Cornelius Uliano, a team that includes Charles M. Schulz's son and grandson.

Paul Feig is credited as a producer on the film, creating a linkage between the Peanuts gang and the kids on the television series "Freaks and Geeks," which he created and was likewise set amid a group of kids trying to figure out the world. It is a constant that the pangs of youth are something that last even for grown-ups, both as phantom memories of childhood and as distillations of the difficulties of being an adult. Filmmaker Wes Anderson has noted the influence of Schulz and Peanuts on the delicate blend of the whimsical and melancholy in his own work.

The animation is notable for the way that the production team has tried to downgrade slightly from the shiny perfection of typical Blue Sky creations to at least nod toward the hand-drawn qualities of Schulz's drawings and the lo-fi feel of the string of animated cartoons that have become holiday television staples.

When Charlie Brown grows embarrassed over something, his face reddens in broad strokes as if someone were coloring him in, and his mouth sometimes quivers as if drawn by an unsteady hand. In 3-D in particular, there is something playfully surprising about seeing the squiggly forelock of hair that has always sat lonely in the middle of Charlie Brown's forehead be raised slightly.

Rather than a star-studded cast of voice actors, the film has used actual children for the voices, and it is among its wisest choices. Noah Schnapp as Charlie, Hadley Belle Miller as Lucy and Alex Garfin as Linus in particular are able to make the characters their own while also capturing the voices many likely already hear in their heads. As Fifi, the object of Snoopy's affection within his Red Baron stories, Kristin Chenoweth is the biggest name in the cast.

The film struggles to hold a line between respecting the classic elements of the story and characters while also giving it all an updated feel via the visuals. A number of the skipping jazz tunes by Vince Guaraldi from the earlier television cartoons, now beloved in their own right, are a joy to be heard but somehow sit uneasily against the computer-generated visuals.

The film's end credits act as something of a character roll call, with images of how they each look in the movie alongside a vintage drawing. It's a nice moment, one that captures both the challenge of the film and also its modest achievements in respectfully moving things forward.

"The Peanuts Movie" falls somewhere between a tribute and something genuinely new. Whether it kicks off a new series of films will remain to be seen, but the spirit of Charlie Brown will always be there to try to kick that ball one more time, no matter how often it is pulled away from him. We can all learn from that.

Twitter: @IndieFocus

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'The Peanuts Movie'

MPAA rating: G, for general audiences

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: In wide release

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