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film review

Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang (Franklin, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty and Sally) revel in a snow day.Twentieth Century Fox & Peanuts Worldwide LLC

Late last week, in a transparent promotional ploy conveniently tied to Halloween, the cast of The Today Show dressed up as characters from The Peanuts Movie. Photos quickly spread across the Internet, accompanied by disbelieving qualifiers like "horrid" and "awful" and "nightmarish."

There was Al Roker as Charlie Brown, Matt Lauer in a huge purple-blue dress as Lucy, Kathie Lee Gifford in an overstuffed yellow suit as Woodstock the bird, and so on. The costumes were truly horrendous. Carson Daly's Linus looked like Gollum from the Hobbit movies. Meredith Vieira's Pig-Pen was, somehow, even worse.

And yet this bungled plug for The Peanuts Movie managed to say more about it than all the other, considerably less ghoulish promotional material combined. Here were the familiar-ish faces of the Peanuts gang, all ghastly and putrefied and totally repellent. It was like the prototypes of Charles M. Schulz's beloved characters had been exposed to some ungodly nuclear fallout, been irreparably mutated and skittered howling and half-molten out of our anguished nightmares and onto America's television screens.

There's a tendency, I think, to believe that nostalgia preserves things: that it's a kind of shellac safeguarding memories of things we care about. The Peanuts Movie reveals that the opposite is true. Nostalgia may offer a rosy, redemptive glaze for the stuff we like – typically stuff from our youth, such as Charlie Brown comics or, more generally, Schulz's charmingly simple notions of small-town life. But underneath that glossy patina, the stuff we like rots and decomposes. Then there's only the nostalgia and the memory of the thing: a shimmery sheen wrapped over a hollow centre.

While it's naive to expect that any media property would stand exempt from the relentless grind of rebooting and revival (and perhaps especially a property as thoroughly franchised as the Peanuts comics), there's something sad about seeing a character as sweet and simple as good ol' Charlie Brown so totally ruined. The Peanuts Movie trots out everyone's favourite balding child and hopeless depressive for another rote adventure where he learns the oft-learned lesson that he should just be himself. (Considering what a neurotic loser he is, maybe Charlie Brown should give being someone else a shot?)

This time around, the anthropomorphic Zoloft tablet tries to win the affections of the new girl in school, while managing his new-found fame after being fraudulently declared a genius for acing a standardized test. There's also a bloated subplot involving Snoopy the dog pretending to be a pilot battling the notorious Red Baron, chopped into the screenplay as a way of showcasing the film's special effects.

The animation itself is one of The Peanuts Movie's few redeeming qualities. Although computer animation has always struck me as a soulless, inhuman craft, the technicians at Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios have retained something of the pleasing crudity of Schulz's drawings. But it's not enough to cover for what's at its core a crass cash-in. (And, to my eye, a somewhat confused one. Does the modern, Minion-obsessed child of today even care about Snoopy, Peppermint Patty and the rest of them?) The Peanuts Movie is a sloppy mash-up of disconnected vignettes and rehashed jokes, all lazily reverse-engineered from the premise that a Peanuts movie is a thing that people will like and will happily pay to see.

Any parent thinking of doing so would be better off sitting their kids down and screening footage of the disgusting Today Show/Peanuts mash-up. Taking in the boringly uplifting message that you should accept yourself for who you are – even if you're as maladjusted, cripplingly self-loathing and talentless as Charlie Brown – is all well-and-good. But watching Kathie Lee Gifford flail around embarrassingly while costumed as a cartoon bird provides a harsher, more vital life lesson: an illustration that nostalgia is a corrupting force, that our culture is a whirling garbage gyre of meaninglessness, and basically all we can do is "AAUGH!" helplessly into the abyss. Just like good ol' Charlie Brown.