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The first seed for The Peanuts Movie, which debuted to a strong $44.3 million debut this past weekend, was unknowingly planted seven years ago with a little CG reel that will never see the light of day.
John Cohen, working for Fox Animation in 2008, reached out to Craig Schulz, the son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, about making an animated feature film based on the Charlie Brown comic strip. Of course, since the iconic cartoonist died in 2000, the family has been flooded with requests for a movie adaptation, but unanimously turned them down, worried that Schulz’s legacy would be affected by a bad movie. Still, Schulz agreed to see the short film Cohen and Blue Sky Studios had made showing CG-animated versions of the iconic characters.
“The [Schulz] family didn’t like it at all,” says Schulz with a laugh. “They thought the animation was terrible and Snoopy was all wrong.”
But Schulz was impressed with how Blue Sky had designed the backgrounds — the snow, the trees, the clouds and the ice. “I saw how beautiful it could be if they could get the characters right,” he says.
Schulz was working on a Peanuts TV movie at the time, but, after showing the script to his son Bryan Schulz and his screenwriting partner Cornelius Uliano, the three decided to write a feature instead. They showed it to the rest of the Schulz estate family, and got their blessing. Then, instead of shopping it around to studios, they went directly to Fox and Blue Sky. They brought the script to director Steve Martino, who had worked on that 2008 CG reel for Blue Sky, and had helmed Dr. Suess’ Horton Hears a Who! that same year.
“I saw how true he was to that brand and thought he could bring that to our movie,” says Schulz.
By the time they were ready to present their script (then titled Snoopy vs. The Red Baron), Cohen had left Fox Animation, so the family spent two years negotiating with Fox Animation director of development Ralph Millero, setting up a unique deal that gave creative control to Craig Schulz.
“We felt we really needed somebody to be the gatekeeper on this movie,” says Schulz, who produced the film along with his son. “We wanted to be true to my dad’s legacy.”
One of the main issues of negotiation was about staying true to the time and place of Peanuts, which ran from 1950 through 2000. The Schulz family did not want the story modernized — the kids still use rotary telephones and Lucy’s therapy fee continues to be only a nickel.
“We were told that you have to have celebrity voices, you have to have hip-hop music — you have to have this stuff to reach the new generation, but we kept fighting back to say if you have a good story with heart and emotion, people will love it,” says Craig Schulz. “And I think that’s been proven.”
It did work, with the film doing strong business in its first weekend. But Schulz says there are no plans for a sequel: “We had this one movie,” he says. “I’m 62 years old. I thought it would be great if in my lifetime I could see one really good Peanuts movie before somebody decides to buy the brand out and decides to make movies just to make money. For the Schulz family, everything we do is to honor my dad’s work and the last thing on our want list is money. It’s always about quality control and making the best things we can.”
The Peanuts Movie is now in theaters.
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