If it ain’t broke: Both ‘Spectre’ and ‘The Peanuts Movie’ embrace the traditions of their respective franchises

If I had one word to surmise the weekend’s two biggest releases – Spectre and The Peanuts Movie – it would have to be…

Predictable. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this stratagem on either of their parts. In fact, given that I am a massive fan of both of these franchises, there is always room in my heart for more installments that play it safe. The Peanuts Movie largely succeeds due to its strict adherence to the formula established in countless holiday specials and other animated iterations of the strip. There is something universal about the Peanuts that allows it to be accessible to any audience, regardless of age or time period, without adding things like cell phones or contemporary pop music. Bond, on the other hand, needs to find new ways to stay relevant. It’s old school concept that is threatened by younger, fresher franchises, forcing it to evolve with the times or fade into obscurity, perhaps the greatest threat Bond will ever face. As M said in GoldenEye…

So this weekend, we saw two franchises (both having passed the half century mark recently) duke it out and both played things fairly traditionally. Did they succeed? Well…kinda.

Spectre

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The plot:

“A cryptic message from the past sends James Bond on a rogue mission to Mexico City and eventually Rome, where he meets Lucia, the beautiful and forbidden widow of an infamous criminal. Bond infiltrates a secret meeting and uncovers the existence of the sinister organisation known as SPECTRE. Meanwhile back in London, Max Denbigh, the new head of the Centre of National Security, questions Bond’s actions and challenges the relevance of MI6 led by M. Bond covertly enlists Moneypenny and Q to help him seek out Madeleine Swann, the daughter of his old nemesis Mr White, who may hold the clue to untangling the web of SPECTRE. As the daughter of the assassin, she understands Bond in a way most others cannot. As Bond ventures towards the heart of SPECTRE, he learns a chilling connection between himself and the enemy he seeks.” – IMDb.com

The review:

The James Bond formula is a pretty tried and trued formula at this point given its over 50 years of success. However, as I stated, there needs to be tweaks here and there with every iteration as it needs to evolve with the times. The movie however looks back to the past more so than any other of Craig’s series of films, ultimately to mixed effect.

Let’s get through the positives first because I need to stress that I enjoyed this movie overall.

First off, it opens incredibly strong. The opening Day of the Dead action sequence is confident, thrilling, and ultimately the best sequence in the film. It opens on a single (with sneaky edits hidden here and there) tracking shot of Bond traversing the crowd, following his target and leads to a chase scene traversing rooftops, city streets and showdown in a helicopter flying over a packet city square. Throughout Craig’s run as Bond, the movies have just gotten better and better in terms of their opening action sequences and this feels like the culmination of his four movies.

Sam Mendes returns as director and once again provides a signature confidence that oozed from his work on Skyfall. While Roger Deakins is sadly absent on cinematographer duties, Hoyte van Hoytema is no push over and provides some pretty stunning visuals particularly during the aforementioned Day of the Dead sequence.

Craig’s Bond finally gets what is closest to the Roger Moore formula the series seems to have distanced itself from in the past decade no doubt to the influx of Bond parodies and the disaster that was Die Another Day.

This lead to a major push towards realism and grit in Craig’s two movies, with a subtle moves to harken back to the fun side of Bond with Mendes’ Skyfall. All of the elements of a typical James Bond movie are here, cheesy or not. It is a “Checklist Bond” movie if there ever was one. Every cliche, every contrivance is on display. Whether this is a celebration of those cliches or the franchise is once again pulling desperately from the idea well is up to debate. Regardless, the movie is largely a fun experience for the most part. I like the silly side of the Bond movies so it was nice to see them celebrated here. I just wish it wasn’t an overload of fan service that the it ends up amounting to.

It’s important to note that Daniel Craig continues to do a great job as the titular superspy but the cracks in his interest in the part are starting to show. His continued public complaining about the role is starting to infect how I view him in the part. Often I find myself thinking he looks pretty disinterested. Whether that’s me reading too much into it (the man is a professional after all) or not is up to debate. Regardless I wish he’d at least wait til he vacated the role before publicly bitching about it because it is distracting. My nitpicking aside, he is still great as Bond for the most part and may just be my favorite of the entire lot.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the emphasis placed on Bond’s team (M, Q, Tanner, and Moneypenny respectively) this time around. One major thing the Mission Impossible films have had in advantage over the Bond franchise over the past few years is that those movies feel like a team effort. Bond movies are typically a one man show with his team maybe a scene or two. Some movies they are allowed to join Bond on missions and it is a real treat as is the case here. Both Ralph Fiennes’ as M and Ben Winshaw’s Q particularly get quite a bit to do and actually get in on some of the action.

The new cast, on the whole, felt kind of wasted, particularly Christoph Waltz and Dave Bautista. These were the two guys I was looking forward to most going in, and both feel somewhat shortchanged. Bautista’s Mr. Hinx, a classic henchman in the same vein as Oddjob and Jaws,  gets the better end of the stick so to speak as he is given a couple of great action sequences to shine in, particularly a fight scene he has on a train (echoing the iconic train fight in From Russia With Lovewith Bond that serves as a major highlight in the film as well as one of the best action scenes in Craig’s tenure. When he leaves the film (too soon I might add), his presence and the sense of danger his character provides is sorely missed.

Mr._Hinx

Conversely, Waltz, who was destined to play a Bond villain, lacks the same sort of menace as say Javiar Bardem provided in Skyfall. For anyone unaware, Waltz plays the new Blofeld. I’d say spoilers but it was fairly obvious from the get-go given Eon now has the rights to the character and the SPECTRE organization again. The reveal wasn’t as eye-rollingly lame as Khan’s in Star Trek Into Darkness but it is yet another case of filmmakers assume fans of a beloved series are dumb and blatantly lying to them during the production phase. Just in case you were wondering, he does acquire the character’s signature scar during the film and he even holds the white cat during a scene while torturing Bond.

Christoph-Waltz-as-Franz-Oberhauser-Blofeld-in-Spectre

While an amazing actor, Waltz feels utterly wasted here. The most menacing he ever is are scenes he isn’t even visible during. When he does appear, he is serviceable acting wise sure but he never really came off as the be-all-end-all threat that both Blofeld and SPECTRE have been to this franchise. The writers also bafflingly made him Bond’s foster brother drawing (what I assume was unintentional) Dr. Evil/Austin Powers parallels. His motivations of hating James Bond are also fairly weak…like really, really weak.

The Bond girls this time out aren’t really to write home about either. Sure, they are stunning to look at and are portrayed by more than capable actresses. The writing just doesn’t do them any favors in the way of actual characterization. For all the hubbub made about the casting of Monica Bellucci and the series finally overcoming ageism, she is really only in the film for about two scenes and is then never seen nor heard from again.

While given more to do, the absolutely stunning Lea Seydoux (so good in Blue is the Warmest Color) also feels wasted. She is the atypical Bond girl. She comes of defensive, but ultimately (and very quickly) falls for Bond’s charms. There isn’t really anything memorable about her, beyond you know how incredibly good looking she is.

Lea

I also had a problem with Bond falling in love with Swan so goddamn quickly. Like not in the typical “James really just wants to sleep with this girl” scheme that we’ve come to know so well. No, this is a woman he is apparently willing to quit MI6 for.  It felt almost like a back step after the groundwork and pathos laid by Vesper Lynd (who remains the franchise’s best Bond girl, bar none) in Casino Royale.

Much like Quantam of Solace, this movie suffers from coming after a franchise high. It isn’t terrible but is no where near as strong as its predecessor. SPECTRE lacks the bite promised in the trailer. We never get a full sense of threat this organization presents to Bond. We are certainly told about its nefarious plans; how they’ve been the orchestrators of Bond’s pain, to which I reply, “Really?” It kind of takes away from the threat and menace of the previous villains (especially Bardem’s Siliva)  to have them all be lapdogs to SPECTRE. Let SPECTRE rest on its own laurels instead of ride on the laurels of ultimately stronger characters. It also unfortunately comes after Mission Impossible V: Rouge Nation, another multi-million blockbuster with a nearly identical plot (Yes, I know both Bond and SPECTRE outrank the Rouge Nation by DECADES but I highly doubt your average movie goer is going to give even the semblance of a shit.) and much more easily digestible run-time. That movie also featured a better “Bond girl” in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust.

Sam Smith’s “Writings on the Wall” still sucks but admittedly works a lot better with the opening credits sequence which was admittedly awesome (possibly H.R. Giger inspired?) although very hentai-tastic.

One, super minor nitpick: I really thought this movie was going to drop a C-bomb and was utterly “devastated” that it didn’t.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a checklist Bond movie that hits all of the same beats that have come before. In many ways, this is the kind of Bond movie I’ve been waiting for. If I were to pinpoint the main problem however is that while it swings for the fences of a classic Bond film, it never really reaches the mark. This was another fun, serviceable James Bond romp, but not one that will ever go down as iconic.

The Peanuts Movie

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The plot:

“Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and the rest of the beloved “Peanuts” gang make their big-screen debut, like they’ve never been seen before, in state of the art 3D animation. Charlie Brown, the world’s most beloved underdog, embarks upon an epic and heroic quest, while his best pal, the lovable beagle Snoopy, takes to the skies to pursue his arch-nemesis, the Red Baron. From the imagination of Charles M. Schulz and the creators of the ICE AGE films, THE PEANUTS MOVIE will prove that every underdog has his day.” – 20th Century Fox

The review:

So basically all the stuff I was bitching about in the last movie about things like sticking too close to the formula? Well the exact opposite is the case here. Peanuts really works best when it stays just as Charles Schultz wrote and illustrated it over 50 years ago.

Where do I even begin in explaining just how important Charles M. Schultz’s Peanuts strip is to me? Seconded only by Calvin and Hobbes, it remains a highlight for the entire comic medium. These characters almost feel as if they are infused into my very DNA. I stress that the strips were more of my thing than the specials or any of the countless cartoons, but for a time, I was obsessed with it all.

I could probably dedicate an entire post about what exactly that makes the Peanuts so special but instead I’ll just relate this: I was introduced to the Peanuts strip at that very special time when my clinical depression was becoming a large part of my life. There was just an inherent sadness to everything and I just couldn’t quite put my finger as to where it was coming from. As it turns out, it is a chemical imbalance in my brain but at the time it felt more personal. That life was going to be one failure to the next. I can’t remember the exact age I was when I was introduced to Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Woodstock, Franklin, Pig Pen, Violet and the whole Peanuts crew, but I distinctly remember the strong attachment I almost immediately felt for Schultz’s characters, particularly Charlie Brown himself. If anything it taught me that I was not alone in these intangible problems and existential fears that were starting to set in.From Charlie Brown I learned that we are not defined by these failures but instead defined by how we act in the face of said failures. When life pulls that football away from you and you wind up on your back, you pick yourself on the ground and try again…no matter how many times that bitch Lucy keeps tricking you with empty promises and motivation.

That’s some pretty hefty stuff for children to take in so instead the Peanuts have largely been re-appropriated by entities like Hallmark and the like as the nostalgia mining empire it has become today. This isn’t without good reason of course. When he wanted to, Schultz embraced the lighter side of life usually though Snoopy – Happiness is a warm puppy after all. – but to any that question how dark the strip could get, check this out. This is the first strip Charlie Brown ever appeared in. This is the strip that introduced the darkly comedic, failure defined loser we know and love/hate to this very day, more than 50 years later…

Jesus...

Jesus…

While not overtly dark, it certainly isn’t as chipper as something like Family Circus or Dennis the Menace. It establishes right from the get go that this isn’t just another strip about the adorable adventures of precocious children. It’s going to be about the cruelties and even hardships of growing up. Kids can be bullies. They can backstab. They can be petty. They can be just as irrational as adults and hate other people just “because.” As I said, there was quite a lot of cute moments too, but Peanuts was never really about the punchline. There is a great series called 3eanuts that eliminate the closing jokes altogether, revealing the comics work just as well as commentary on heavy, non-kiddy things like existential despair and dread. While not it’s defining attribute, Peanuts was a lot more brutal (particularly to good, old Charlie Brown) our collective consciousness seems to care to remember…

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Oh jeez…

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Been there, man…

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More than once…

The beauty and utter universality of this strip was hidden in its simplicity. I need to stress again though this series wasn’t defined by depression or despair, it just highlighted that even kids deal with things like that. On the whole, I remember me for providing a life line as I was a kid like millions of other kids around the world who, like Charlie Brown, dealt with big, undefinable “nothingness.” The fear and realities of failure. Sure it lost its bite as the years went on as Snoopy’s silly antiques began to take center-stage but for the first few decades Schultz’s strip remains an near incorruptible cultural landmark through the universality he captured.  I mean I never got rocks for Halloween (fucking adults in this town hate this kid so much that they gave him actual rocks for the simple mistake of having a shitty ghost costume!), but I’ve always felt an inherent kinship to that little depressing, bald kid. Needless to say, this is a world (particularly the strip) that I highly treasure and am therefore highly protective.

This latest animated adaptation comes from the folks over at Blue Sky Studios, an animation studio with no good feature films to its name. (The Ice Age films are largely forgettable and the less I say about Rio the better.) This lead to a vast amount of anxieties that I am obliged to say are embarrassing as a 24-year-old adult men. When studios mine the nostalgia well there are often two extremes the results land in with anything landing in the middle being largely forgettable. These two extremes are…

The best case scenario: the movie awakens the inner child within me with its unbridled and unabashed enthusiasm and lack of cynicism. Examples include 2011’s The Muppets and last year’s The Lego Movie.

The worst case scenario: the movie is a blatant cash grab, ignoring everything that made the Peanuts THE Peanuts and instead utilizes modern pop music, big name celebrity talent, and empty, soulless fan service to appease older fans. In other words, a fresh and funky spin on characters that should remain timeless and universally accessible to anyone of any age. Examples include fellow Sunday strip adaptations Garfield and Marmaduke. (Both of those were also put out by 20th Century Fox, along with this movie, leading to my worries only worsening.)

Fortunately The Peanuts Movie sways much closer to the best case scenario more often than not. It may well be the most charming movie I’ve seen this year. It never reaches the height of say Inside Out, but isn’t supposed to. I’ve never busted a gut laughing at any joke from anything Peanuts related. The Peanuts have never been about showing of, and instead offer a quaint alternative and I absolutely dare you not to feel immense waves of warmth and nostalgia when the music of Vince Guaraldi or the high-pitched laughs and chips of Bill Melendez as both Snoopy and Woodstock respectively. It the cinematic equivalent to a warm hug from an old friend. Not particularly substantial in any way, but welcome none-the-less.

Plot wise there really isn’t much to say as there really isn’t much of one which is as it should be. Peanuts isn’t really known for its arcs so to speak. They sort of meander with the loosest of connecting threads to sew the scenes together in a cohesive whole. I’m all for simple as long as simple doesn’t translate to boring and I was never bored with this movie. It’s hard to saw whether or not kids are going to like this or not but I feel on the whole, if you are familiar enough with the strip or the specials, you’ll at least have a somewhat pleasant experience. The movie clocks in at a breezy less than an hour and a half so it never overstays its welcome. Charlie Brown doesn’t have to solve some sort of overarching issue such as finding a lost Snoopy or winning the river rafting race. (The respective plots of two past Peanuts film.) Instead the film serves as a series of quasi sketches as good, Ol’ Chuck attempts to gain the favor of the ever elusive Little Red-Haired Girl.

Given the wide breadth of material to mine from, the film pulls a “Greatest Hits” much in the same way Spectre does. The kite eating tree. Snoopy’s WWI flying ace. Joe Cool. Lucy’s psychiatry booth. All are here and eagle eyed Schultz fans will catch a clever easter egg here and there.

The studio wisely opted to the time honored tradition of casting actual kids to voice these ageless characters. Blue Sky is notorious for stunt casting so it’s nice to see the studio shy away from big names in favor of actual authenticity. Kristin Chenoweth appears briefly as a love interest for Snoopy but her “dialogue” is limited to barks and yips so it’s never distracting. One the whole, all of the kid actors are fine in their respective roles. The kids they got for Linus and Lucy particularly are spot on.

My issues with the film are more like minor quibbles I have with modern animated movies as a whole. As crisp and often stunning the animation was, I had trouble adjusting the mix of both 2-D and 3-D animation. They never perfectly coalesced for me, particularly during the Snoopy fantasy sequences. I can’t really put my finger on it either which is frustrating since I should be expected to explain why it bother me but I can’t. It just looks weird to have the traditional animation style interacting with relatively realistic backgrounds, textures and environments. If anything, I like this a hell of a lot more than if they made the horrible mistake of making the characters look realistic, like actually looking like human children. So for what it is, it is by no means bad AT ALL. I also really appreciated a lot of the little touches such as the little dots indicating Woodstock’s flight pattern, action lines coming off a fast moving character and even the thought bubbles. I just found adding realistic textures to things like Snoopy’s ears or Pig Pen’s dirt cloud was just a little off-putting. What do you want from me?!

I’d be happier without any pop music appearing but their presence isn’t really a hindrance. For what it’s worth, Christophe Beck’s score is fine but the music honestly works best when it queues back to Guaraldi’s original stuff or remained as simplistic as the music from the older specials.

I also found this iteration of Charlie Brown, the character, to be a tad on the generic side. He is still the good-hearted loser but without the more melancholy musings that made the character so iconic and ultimately more poignant and relatable in Schultz’s strip. Speaking of, the movie ends on a rather high, somewhat un-Schultz-like manner. I’d say it was almost a betrayal of the material but I guess I can’t blame the filmmakers from wanting to provide kids with the narrative rewards like validation and resolution.

So this is a fine Peanuts film and largely a much better one than I was anticipating. I’m happy to report that my childhood wasn’t raped (I fucking hate the term so much) nor was there really any fear of that happening if we are going to be real for a second. The memories I have attached with this series run deeper than any misinterpretation could attempt to uproot.  I’m happy though that for the most part, this movie has at least a piece of the wonderful soul carried from the strip that brought me comfort so many years ago and I can in no way fault this movie for that.

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