Charlie Brown wears his age better than James Bond.
The two icons return in spiffy new films this week. “The Peanuts Movie” brings the old newspaper comic strip into the world of computer-animation, while “Spectre” stitches together the three previous Agent 007 movies that starred Daniel Craig.
Both characters were born in the 1950s and have gone through many an iteration. But a funny thing has happened on the way to the 21st century cineplex: Chuck becomes a living, breathing boy who makes viewers feel true empathy, while attempts to fill in Bond’s backstory feel like they could have been written by a beagle at a typewriter.
While the films both are expected to crush the box office this weekend, only one is truly worth your time — unless you’re a completist or a masochist.
Bland, James Bland
There is much to like in “Spectre.”
Director Sam Mendes’ long, uncut opening shot through the Mexican Día de los Muertos parade is beautifully choreographed. He makes intriguing color choices — only instead of the vibrant palette he used in “Skyfall,” he alternates between gold tones and blacks-and-whites. Dave Bautista (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) is intimidating as the henchman Hinx. And Craig remains the coolest actor on the planet not named George Clooney or a pre-Lincoln commercial Matthew McConaughey.
Unfortunately, much of “Spectre” feels as passionless as contract work. Car chases are soundtracked with a bombast inversely proportional to the low stakes involved, and the humor clunks and thuds. At one point, Bond falls down the side of a building, grabs a light fixture, then drops, seated, onto an abandoned couch in an alleyway. I have to say I hadn’t groaned so heartily since Roger Moore snowboarded to the Beach Boys in “A View to a Kill.”
For those not well-versed in Agent 007 lore, “Spectre” alludes, in part, to shadowy crime syndicate SPECTRE, which first appeared in Fleming’s 1961 novel “Thunderball” and the 1962 Sean Connery-era film “Dr. No.” Our man stumbles across this worldwide criminal organization after he pulls an octopus-embossed ring off the finger of an assassin he throws from a helicopter above a public square in Mexico City. Though Bond is intrigued, his bosses are displeased by the publicity, especially as Her Majesty’s Secret Service is about to be contracted into the British government’s MI6.
Not one to ever be chosen employee of the month, an undeterred Bond sets off on an unsanctioned search for SPECTRE, only to find the group’s tentacles encircling not only world governments, but nearly everyone in his entire life.
Craig breathed fresh air into the franchise starting with 2006’s “Casino Royale,” but “Spectre” is more “Quantum of Solace” than “Skyfall.” This is the 25th episode in the 007 franchise, and, unfortunately, everything new becomes old again.
Early in the film, it seems Bond may have found an age-appropriate “Bond girl” in the grieving widow played by Monica Bellucci. But he is soon wooing the daughter of an old nemesis, Dr. Madeleine Swann (played by a 30-year-old Lea Seydoux opposite 47-year-old Craig). It’s difficult to understand why exactly these two suddenly become soul mates, other than they both had the foresight to pack formal evening wear for a long train trip across the Sahara.
And then there’s bloviating bad guy Oberhauser. The casting of Christoph Waltz as the head of SPECTRE is a little too on-the-nose. His cartoonish presence fits perfectly in the exaggerated realms of Quentin Tarantino films, but not here. The Craig-era Bond films to this point have been, gritty and grounded, earthy and realistic. Waltz waltzes in with all the subtlety of Roger Rabbit.
“Spectre” is intended to be a throwback, but it becomes a ho-hum homage to something that bored audiences well before Mike Myers upended the spy genre in his “Austin Powers” comedies.
And well before it ends, “Spectre” becomes a cartoonish parody of itself.
Happiness is a good movie
When trailers for “The Peanuts Movie” appeared, it wasn’t clear what to expect.
The 2-D drawings of Charlie Brown and the gang looked odd as 3-D computer-animated characters. And even though the characters live on in reprints, greeting cards, holiday ornaments and dusty old DVDs, Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip ended a full 15 years ago. Do little kids (and, more importantly, their parents) still care about Good Ol’ Charlie Brown?
“The Peanuts Movie” manages to nail the strip’s comic timing and play its core sentiment — a childlike desire for acceptance — to near perfection. The film provokes real joy and sadness without pulling a Pixar and hitting viewers over the head with characters named Joy and Sadness.
The plot is rightfully simple: When a red-headed girl moves in across the street, Charlie Brown sees the opportunity for a new start with someone who doesn’t believe he’s a blockhead. He starts down a road of self-improvement, hoping to woo the new neighbor by honing his skills as a magician for the school talent show and learning to tango for the school dance.
He fails, of course, but he does so spectacularly.
“The Peanuts Movie” takes years of story lines from the comic strips and distills them into a cohesive 90-minute feature.
Lucy’s therapy stand, Chuck’s kite-eating tree, Schroeder’s love for Beethoven and Linus’ love for his blankie aren’t just name-checked to tickle your nostalgia bone. Each is given a purpose to serve the greater story.
At the same time, the film achieves some fine multilevel storytelling of Snoopy’s imaginary adventures as a World War I flying ace. It’s the sort of meta-narrative found in better episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The Lego Movie,” as well as another of Fox’s Blue Sky Studios’ animated franchises, “Ice Age.”
And the animators’ choice to render and texture everything semi-lifelike except for the characters’ expressions (a la Adult Swim’s “Robot Chicken”) calms any unease at seeing the comic strip brought to life for modern moviegoers.
If the film has a fault, it tries to squeeze in a little too much — perhaps an edit of one too many diversions into the European countryside would have been appropriate. And the ending might be a little too upbeat for Charlie Brown’s inherent pathos and despair.
But “The Peanuts Movie” provides so much joy before the final credits roll, a little overindulgence is easily forgiven.
David Frese, firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @DavidFrese
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:28.
‘The Peanuts Movie’
Rated G. Time: 1:33.
3-D or not 3-D?
The 3-D adds a nice depth of field to “The Peanuts Movie,” especially to the scenes of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.