It's not enough to claim, as I was almost content to do, that The Peanuts Movie shows up as a very good example of how to do modernisation right. Upgrading Charles Schulz's achingly melancholic comic strip that ran from 1950 to 2000, and the considerably less melancholic but sometimes nearly as iconic TV specials that aired sporadically from 1965 to 2011 (who knew they were still making Peanuts specials in the 2010s? Or that there were 45 of them in total?) for an audience of 2010s kids trained that animated features are in 3-D and fully-rendered CGI and have pop music breaks seemed to be a transparently unacceptable idea from the get-go. But The Peanuts Movie indulges on all of those contemporary trends while also paying heartfelt respect to the half-century tradition of Peanuts animation (including four prior theatrical features), splitting the difference between them perfectly and in the process managing to emerge as the most visually unique major-studio animated feature in hell, I don't even know how long. It is the film that catapults third-tier Blue Sky Studios (of the Ice Ages and Rios, films so DreamWorks-ey that even DreamWorks couldn't have made them) right up to the top rank of mainstream American animation. Maybe only for this one film - probably, in fact; they're making a fifth Ice Age. But right now, stack up Peanuts against 2015's animated triumph Inside Out, and ask me which one I think is the more important and exciting film at the level of visual aesthetic, and I can only shrug and say that I hope Pixar and I can still be friends now that I've started dating somebody else.

So this is not merely a good example of modernising a classic property for a new audience, as I was saying back up there. This is successful enough to justify the very concept of modernisation, which I am in the main deeply put off by: using new tools and old sensibilities and coming up with something that's completely its own thing. It's not that The Peanuts Movie is "better" than A Charlie Brown Christmas, or anything daft like that. Just that it's so successful at crafting a new identity for itself that constantly checking it against the most classic of the classic Peanuts specials hardly seems worth the effort.

It's still Peanuts, mostly. The plot is a stew made up of elements taken directly from the comic strip, and those which strongly evoke the strip but aren't quite the same. Midwestern suburban preteen Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) is the local punching bag for all of his many schoolmates who regard him as a failure in every way someone can fail, but beneath the extreme self-loathing he carries as a result of all this, he has the heart of a romantic. And this comes into play one winter's afternoon when he gets a new across-the-street neighbor in the form of a red-haired girl that he starts crushing on, hard, from the moment he first sees her. His chance to impress her first comes in the form of a team book report with her as his partner, which manages to end in despair for completely accidental reasons; his second comes when he's announced to be the only person to get a perfect score on a school-wide test, and he's celebrated by the entire school. Only he didn't get a perfect score at all: because of another accident, he put his name on the wrong answer sheet (hard to say if that's a "spoiler" or not: it's right there out front if you have your eyes open, but the film is quite disinterested in emphasising it, for a kids' film). While this goes on, Charlie Brown's dog Snoopy (his squawks culled from 41 years' worth of Bill Melendez recordings of the character) finds a typewriter and begins to write a great novel about his time as a fighter pilot in World War I, dueling in the skies with the Red Baron and flirting with pretty a flying ace poodle named Fifi (Kristen Chenoweth, with literally nothing to do that justifies her presence, but I get that it's an in-joke).

Writers Craig Schulz & Bryan Schulz (Charles Schulz's son and grandson) & Cornelius Uliano capture the general tone of the original material well; I am a little incensed, as an abiding fan of the Peanuts strip, that the movie turns out to be so nice. Without giving anything away, Charlie Brown is too damn competent - the first of the film's two narrative arcs ends with him failing, but only because of terrible bad luck, and the ending... I shan't say. But the ending is way too upbeat for Peanuts. A little loss, a little melancholy, a little suffering - that's Peanuts, but it is not The Peanuts Movie (to be fair, the animated versions of the franchise have long been more optimistic than the strip).

Still, that's part of the whole thing where the movie finds it own footing as a version of the material that is not "by Schulz", regardless of the onscreen text. For everything that's clearly looking back to the old classics - Christophe Beck's score with its feints towards Vince Guaraldi (including an appearance from Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy"), the casting of young non-actors with unpolished line deliveries, and the designs - the new film includes attitudes, song cues, and comic timing that all feel very contemporary, without knocking things lopsided. It's a delicate balance, and the film doesn't consistently stick the landing (the pop interludes are frankly dumb), but it leaves plenty to love at the levels of storytelling, gentle and generous characterisations (though the film does fall down badly in trying to give any character besides Charlie Brown or Snoopy much to do - the relative invisibility of overconfident bully Lucy throughout the film breaks my heart).

And in animation; honestly, if The Peanuts Movie had nothing on hand other than a nice story about pleasantly sympathetic characters told with a gentle touch, it would be easy to like and forget, but the animation sets it on some entirely different level. It's a hybrid that shouldn't work: the flat, jerky animation of the old TV specials translated into three-dimensional computer models that don't become any less flat or jerky: the framerate never goes up, and the action takes place resolutely along two-dimensional planes, except in Snoopy's fantasies, which erupt along the Z-axis in a manner that feels excessively satisfying at the narrative level (what should fantasy do, if not interrupt the patterns of daily life?). The characters' faces are in thick black lines that look like somebody used a marker on a 3-D shape. The hair and cloth, meanwhile, are detailed at an exceedingly fine level, and the backgrounds are lushly colored and full of business, more like cartoons than realism, but elaborate in a way that the characters never are. After a few seconds getting your head around the fact that there are 3-D characters moving "on the fours", or something like that (meaning, it's only every fourth frame, maybe every third, that changes position). something we've never really seen in an American CG animated feature, it feels ineffably right for the story and characters to be presented in such an off-kilter form. It is old Peanuts reborn in new technology, and both the material and the technology feel fresher than they would have without that curious marriage.

Besides, it's damned beautiful: the almost fuzzy quality to the backgrounds and soft colors, and the "rendered 3-D as a hand-painted cartoon" textures of all the images are as different from mainstream children's animation as a studio like Blue Sky could possible dare to go. This is so devoid of confrontation that it would be impossible to call any of this "experimental", or what have you, but it does push the barriers of studio animation in a wildly unexpected direction and manages to be all the more likable, pleasant, and satisfying for doing so. It's only because a tremendous amount of thought and care went into looking that the film can be such a success at feeling free of affect and easygoing.