I just saw the new Peanuts movie with my kids, who are avid Peanuts fans and aged 8 and 11. We all felt it captured the nature and tone of the comics very well, even though it uses a sort of felt/fuzzy 3D that adds texture and stereoscopic effect without trying to create a weird 3D world. Snoopy when he's not fully to the side is represented as in the comics—with his eyes like a flounder, which looks correct!
But the little red-haired girl is a prominent plot point in the movie and, spoilers ahead, I fear the film recapitulates some troubling aspects from the strip. Charlie Brown is not a harasser or an aggressor, nor, should it be noted, are his intentions even inappropriate for his ostensible age, which seems around nine in the movie, though the kids are asked to write a 1,000-word book report in a week at one point.
Charlie Brown becomes infatuated with her from the back of her head and her hair color. We have all done worse, I'm sure. One aspect of someone, even the angle of a face in the dim light, can make us have a crush as intense as if beneath thousands of feet of water. But the difference between an infatuation and mutual respect and liking, which is seemingly the only requiting that Charlie Brown desires, is acquaintance.
The little red-haired girl is spoken of only as the little red-haired girl throughout the movie, like the inestimable Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels, who is only "The Girl" in the credits. Her interests and desires are unknown to us, though we have indications she enjoys dancing, as Charlie Brown stalks her from across the street, staring into her front window from his living room and bedroom, she never aware that he's looking. Is she pleasant or awful, kind or cruel, good at school or indifferent? Angry, sad, happy, melancholy, silly?
We know none of these things. She has no presence; she exists only through the interest of Charlie Brown, as if he created her through his pounding need to be meaningful. She is the object of the desire; Charlie Brown is the camera. His gaze falls upon her again and again, though she almost never knows.
Charlie Brown, meanwhile, meets no one's standards, despite his sterling qualities. He is the shlemiel (the one who spills the soup) and the shlemozzel (the person upon whom the soup is spilled). He is the Blockhead. He can get nothing right. But it's unclear how much has to do with his innate lack of ability, and how much the need of those around him to grind him down—Linus excepted. (Linus is the Christ figure in Peanuts, and even he sometimes is tired of Charlie Brown, but he often offers him succor and the best advice.)
But this film has a unique property: Charlie Brown, the donkey, becomes the unicorn. He masters a magic act, but gives it up to save his sister from humiliation. He makes wonderful cupcakes, and Snoopy eats them all. He saves Marcie from dropping the punch, but then spills some to later effect. He studies dancing for days or weeks, and masters it—only to slip in the punch.
The ultimate indignity is that he is raised up on high for a perfect standardized test result. The film makes good sport of this kind of testing, extolling his 100-percent result as something the school and other students celebrate—subversive. Because the top score is obtained not by him, but by Peppermint Patty, who has filled out a smiley face on her sheet, which corresponded accidentally to the answers. Thus doubly subverted.
During his period of popularity for the test results, he is like Roberto Benigni in To Rome with Love (the last Woody Allen film I will ever watch), where an absolutely ordinary man becomes inexplicably the object of obsessive media attention. The filmmakers surely riff off this concept.
But Charlie Brown cannot win, despite everything being a contest in school: the dance (a trophy), the book report (gold star), the standardized test (100 percent). He realizes on stage the perfect test is not his; he outs himself before it turns into a sitcom plot, but doesn't ridicule Peppermint Patty for her testing strategy. (Subversive, subversive.)
The end of the school year approaches, and Charlie Brown has spoken to the little red-haired girl twice, at most. He introduces himself with the wrong name (a callback to a summer-camp romance with Peggy Jean in the comic strips), and later on the playground when she discovers he had written an elaborate book report that he would turn in as both their work, since she was out of town (visiting a sick grandmother, but portrayed as her choice, rather than obviously that of her parents). There is no moral opprobrium in the film that he is removing her agency from participating, even though she was unaware of the assignment and would not be marked down for it.
But the last day of school, she is finally allowed a moment of action. Charlie Brown's name is drawn during a summer pen-pal matchup—why have pen pals with each other when everyone lives in the same tiny town?—and she volunteers. Again, he does not speak with her.
Finally, he realizes he must return a pencil she lost on the first day of school—a totem of hers he kept secretly, failing to return. (She even notes when he finally does that she had been missing it.) Through a slight misadventure, he manages to fly a kite—symbolically, his kite is always eaten by a tree, preventing him from soaring—and get to her before he bus leaves for summer camp, and address her, but still as an inferior.
Charlie Brown is a victim of toxic masculinity, or perhaps a more general toxic culture of success and failure. His inabilities may be innate, but his behavior doesn't justify the scrutiny to which he is held. His bully, Lucy, is both supportive and condemning, in the nature of true bullies, though she finally comes around. (The movie is generally kinder on average to him than the strips.)
He cannot live up the standards of perfection to which he believes he must achieve, and he sees the little red-haired girl as something while he is nothing. That is, she is out of his league. But why? All humans are the same ultimately, except for the contents of our soul.
When Charlie Brown finally speaks to his paramour, he is contemptuous of himself, but he is at the verge of satori. He needs to believe someone else has found something worthwhile in him, and he makes the ultimate act of vulnerability and self-abasement: he asks her why she asked to write to him.
She then lists his virtues, as clearly portrayed in the movie. Her virtue, so far as we know, is that she has red hair; his are manifold, but he refused to recognize them. He achieves satori and the acceptance of his peers. She achieves her selfhood—her agency is finally available, before she journeys to another place.
Then, Lucy pulls the football away from him again, he falls to earth, and the cycle of his melancholy repeats, as it does for all of us on this karmic wheel.