Charlie Brown, friends make charming return to big screen in ‘The Peanuts Movie’

Fifty years after Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang leaped from the printed comics page to animation in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the kids — along with a dog and a bird — are back with their first feature-length presentation since 1980, now sporting the magic of computer-generated imagery.

“The Peanuts Movie” definitely adds a visual fluidity common within the current crop of animated features. When the first trailers for “The Peanuts Movie” came out, many people lamented the modern look of the film, saying the simplistic artistry of the many Peanuts television specials and the four previous movies was what enhanced the charm of these efforts. And now, in addition to the computer graphics, a 3-D version is offered.

The animation for “The Peanuts Movie” did make provisions to emulate those familiar visuals of the earlier Peanuts adventures. The trees and other foliage in the background do not sway or billow in the breeze. The characters themselves at times look jagged.

Of course, as cute as the characters may be on screen, they have to resonate as the young kids in the strip that enchanted readers in the 50 years the strip ran.

That means Charlie Brown is the emotional core — the likable loser, the boy was endures setback after setback but sets aside his disillusionment and keeps on trying. Countering Charlie Brown is his dog Snoopy, the ultimate dreamer who despite an elaborate fantasy world really does have a grip on reality and always seems to land on his feet.

So naturally, the main story lines in “The Peanuts Movie” surround these two characters. It is winter and with the baseball season over — the ball field and pitchers mound are covered with snow — Charlie Brown turns to another activity to which his record of failures continues to mount — kite flying.

Then a shakeup in the neighborhood. A new family moves in and immediately Charlie Brown, the eternal optimist, sees an opportunity to make a fresh start with any kids in this new family — a friend who will not see Charlie Brown the failure.

It gets complicated, however, as the new child turns out to be a girl, the Little Red-Haired Girl that faithful readers of the strip rooted for Charlie Brown to win over — with no luck.

Frozen by his insecurities, Charlie Brown (voice of Noah Schnapp) nevertheless is thrown into situations in which he might make an impression on the girl — while also being faced with the prospect of unrelenting mortification if he screws up in front of her.

A big advantage of “The Peanuts Movie” is that the screenplay was written by Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan, who honor the characterizations that took hold over the 50 years of the strip.

While Charlie Brown tries avoid a train wreck in his objective to win the heart of The Little Red-Haired Girl, Snoopy, between lending moral support to his owner, builds his own fantasy, inspired by Charlie Brown’s efforts. He assumes his most famous alter ego — the World War I Flying Ace — whose pursuits in shooting down The Red Baron take on heroic twists as the ace, along with his ground crew of Woodstock and other bird buddies, must rescue the adorable lady beagle Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth), who has been taking prisoner by the Germans. By the way, the voice characterizations of Snoopy and Woodstock are recycled sound bites of the late Bill Melendez (1916-2008) that were used in the TV shows and movies.

As always, amid his almost always disastrous adventures, Charlie Brown is surrounded by a cast of characters so familiar to everybody who has ever read Peanuts or seen the animated productions. There is Lucy, perpetual antagonist to Charlie Brown, the big sister from hell, the undaunted pursuer of Schroeder’s love. There is Linus, the blanket-toting, philosophically sound brother of Lucy, a bedrock of common sense yet who is irrational in his need for security via a blanket and his undying belief in The Great Pumpkin. There is Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister whose respect for her big brother fluctuates wildly and who has her own continual frustration of unrequited love — Linus’ (“I am NOT your Sweet Babboo!”). There is Peppermint Patty, superb athlete and hopeless student, along with her friend, the bespectacled Marcie, whose grip on reality, like Linus, is pretty rooted except for one flaw — an inability to stop calling Peppermint Patty “sir.”

Other characters who were relegated to supporting cast roles in the strip are here also: Patty and Shermy, two of the original characters who pretty much disappeared in the latter years of the strip, as well as Violet, who was introduced into the strip a few months into its run; Frieda, the girl with naturally curly hair; the perpetually grimy Pig Pen; Schroeder, the pianist extraordinaire and fan of Beethoven; and Franklin, a boy who in the strip met Charlie Brown during a beach outing.

One character notably missing is Rerun, younger brother of Lucy and Linus, who became a major character in the last years of the strip, which ended in 2000. His omission actually is consistent with the timeline of the strip, as The Little Red-Haired Girl moved away from the neighborhood, leaving a brokenhearted Charlie Brown, about a year before Rerun was born.

The script does stray from some of the characters’ situations in the strips. In “The Peanuts Movie,” Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Franklin are classmates of Charlie Brown, Lucy, and others, while in the strips, these three lived in another town and attended a different school.

The story is sweet and funny, driven by situations in which all of us can relate to — who hasn’t identified with one or more of the Peanuts characters at one time or another? These kids can be incredibly cruel to one another while at other times offer keen insight and compassion.

While different composers have been employed over the years to score the animated Peanuts productions — in “The Peanuts Movie,” Christophe Beck wrote the score — the enduring music of Peanuts has always been the now classic jazzy songs written by Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976) that debuted in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In a salute to Guaraldi’s work, two very familiar songs, “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating,” have been included in the soundtrack.

Also, interspersed in the feature are the comic strip sketches by Charles Schulz himself, serving as a reminder that it was the strip, after all, that introduced us to the Peanuts gang and made these characters a part of the daily lives of readers for nearly 18,000 strips.