‘Peanuts’ movie creators were dedicated to staying loyal to comic strip

Lucy and Charlie Brown in "The Peanuts Movie." (Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

Lucy and Charlie Brown in “The Peanuts Movie.” (Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox)

By Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Sixty-five years ago, a newcomer to newspaper comic pages asked for some advice from a neighbor.

“I have deep feelings of depression,” a round-faced kid named Charlie Brown told a smart-aleck girl named Lucy in an early strip. “What can I do about it?”

“Snap out of it,” pronounced Lucy, the sort of goofy and deeply captivating exchange that made Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” iconic. The Minneapolis-born, St. Paul-raised cartoonist, who died in 2000 at age 77, largely invented the modern comic strip with a gang of winsome boys, take-charge girls and Charlie’s daydreaming beagle, Snoopy.

More than delivering light comedy for children, “I wanted a strip with dignity and significance,” he told Time magazine in 1965. He also got a huge international following in print, top-rated animated TV specials and exhibits in Carnegie Hall and the Louvre.

Lucy’s “snap out of it” is also advice Craig Schulz could give to fans who have lost touch with the strip since his father’s death in 2000.

For the first time in decades, the “Peanuts” gang is returning to the big screen. The arrival of the new 3-D computer-animated movie (opening Nov. 6) moved St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to make Oct. 20 a Charles M. Schulz Day of civic celebration.

Craig Schulz called the project, which he coproduced, “my dream movie,” adding, “I thought it would never happen, but it has.”

The three-year production is a special sort of triumph for his father, Schulz said by phone recently from the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, Calif., where he also lives. The elder Schulz got off to a rocky start with “Peanuts.” Before it took off, he offered a similar strip in the St. Paul Pioneer Press from 1947 to 1950, when it was canceled.

He also “applied for a job at Walt Disney Studios and got turned down there,” Craig Schulz said. “But obviously in the long term it turned out better for him.

“It worked out great for my dad. And worked out kind of sad for Walt. He probably would have liked to have my dad there. He would have taken over, I think.”

Schulz co-wrote the new film with his son, Bryan, a recent film school graduate, and Bryan’s screenwriting partner, Cornelius Uliano. For years, Charles Schulz’s heirs turned down offers from major studios that had their own vision of the material.

“We had studios calling us constantly, and we thought it just wasn’t worth the risk doing a film because we just didn’t trust who was going to make it,” said Schulz, eventually going with Blue Sky Studios, owned by 20th Century Fox.

“We felt like we had missed a new generation” as kids stopped reading the strip, “and there was no way to really capture them without a film,” he said. “My hope has always been that a movie would create a ripple effect to drive people back to the books.”

Paul Feig, creator of comedy landmarks including NBC’s acclaimed high school series “Freaks and Geeks” and the 2011 smash “Bridesmaids,” said he loved discovering the world of “Peanuts” in print as an only child.

“I literally couldn’t go to sleep at night without reading one of the paperback collections of comic strips,” he said. “I really related to all the characters.”

He signed on as executive producer of the new feature, bringing the classic to a modern audience because he still adores it.

“And it’s funny because of its honesty,” Feig said. “Nobody has an idyllic life. It’s so reflective of what life is.”

In the film revival, “we wanted to make sure we didn’t break the tone or try to make it something it’s not, or try to modernize it.

“Kids are watching very different kinds of cartoons these days where everything’s very fast-paced and big and broad and over the top. You want to make sure you’re not making it tonally something it’s not. And the studio agreed. Nobody said they’ve got to put their baseball hats on backwards and start rapping.”

The film expands the “Peanuts” world beyond the visual envelope it occupied on TV, Schulz said. “I really embraced that. My dad’s thing was the comic strip, not the TV specials or toys, but he was always willing to try new things.”

While his father didn’t have the creative oversight in the TV specials his family had in the new film, “there’s little doubt he would have gone in this direction.”

The film’s computer-generated graphics transform parts of the cartoon’s pen-and-ink minimalist aesthetic, and the modern soundtrack reaches far beyond Vince Guaraldi’s instrumental jazz. But every facial expression, stance and swirl of curly hair was painstakingly perfected to mimic the original artistry.

The same goes for the Midwestern setting. Charlie Brown’s locale vividly copies the look of snow-covered yards, birch trees and modest homes that Schulz copied into the strip from his youth.

During a year and a half of research, director Steve Marino took a walking tour of the cartoonist’s St. Paul neighborhood, carefully viewing everything from the ball field to the houses’ three-step concrete walk-ups. It was, the studio said, by far the biggest challenge it had faced and the biggest obligation it had accepted to honor the comic strip.

Schulz said he’s pleased by the attention the film is generating, “but really, the essence of ‘Peanuts’ can only be found in the comic strip — not in toys and products and so forth.”

He added, “We hope to drive them back to reading that, and reading the messages my dad had.”

In fact, it may be a long while before a follow-up follows. “This is just a one-movie deal,” Schulz said. “We didn’t want to get caught up in making films just to earn money. It’s not a franchise by any means. My goal was to make one good ‘Peanuts’ movie.”

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