The Peanuts – An American Saga
For some it’s the characters, for others it’s the moral inner beauty and simplistic theme that the Peanuts offer. Whether it’s the intellectual comedy or just watching the Peanut specials as a kid; perhaps you belong to those millions who treasured the Daily’s and the Sunday's. One thing is for certain: The Peanuts comic strip has something for everyone!
Charles "Sparky" Shultz created a treasured American tale about a humble well-meaning little boy who just can't seem to hit the jackpot. Add the characters of a dog who rides a motor cycle, a boy and his blanket, a girl and her crabbiness, and another boy with his piano. The name Charlie Brown was first used for his earlier attempt at Peanuts, Li'l Folks (1947-1950) and published in Shultz’ home town newspaper “St. Paul Pioneer Press” that also featured a dog that very well could have been an early version of Snoopy.
When the strip was picked up by the United Feature Syndicate, "Sparky," despite his dislike for the name, decided to restart the strip as Peanuts. The first edition was published on October 27,1950. Fifteen years later the first special “A Charlie Brown Christmas” came out featuring the creative minds of animator and filmmaker Bill Melendaz, Lee Melendaz, and Charles Shultz, as well as the legendary voice talent of Peter Robbins. Half the country tuned in when it aired on December 7, 1965. And as if that weren’t enough for the astounded masterminds, the special went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody Award! Although this had not been the first Charlie Brown special - the first was an unaired documentary titled “A Boy named Charlie Brown” - it and the other specials are what modern day viewers associate Charlie Brown with. As many more specials would follow, America just couldn't seem to get enough of Charlie, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, and the rest of the Peanuts gang.
By the late 90's however both the specials and strip were beginning to run out of steam, followed by the emergence of the flat characteristics of Lucy's youngest brother Rerun. With the childish innocence leaving the child actors innocence replaced with the seemingly intelligent jibber, the kind you hear PBS and other animated shows of the contemporary era. Tragedy followed the draining in ingenuity, as the creative genius Shultz himself passed away on February 12, 2000, and Bill Melenez in 2008 has further slowed down Peanuts' creative movement. I do not blame the mistakes Peanuts suffered in the new era but as they were part of that formula that made Peanuts special. I do not blame it on the new directors and decision makers. I'm not blaming anybody, the specials were not that bad. Yet, is it just me or do the kids seem to be getting dumber? To date "He's A Bully Charlie Brown" is the last Peanuts special to air. However, rumors have it that a new special, “Happiness is a Warm Blanket Charlie Brown,” is set to air sometime this year.
Whatever happens to the Peanuts legacy, the comic strip, which began in 1950 has since inspired board games, picture books, numerous television specials, a mini series, a tv series, two highly successful Broadway hits - even a few feature films. But for some reason or another the specials have continuously out-shined all the other media that has been presented to the public. It's particularly a shame that the films could not catch on with the younger generation. As a ten year old in a play of great empathy, I had suddenly gone Charlie Brown mad. As I was performing “You're a Good Man Charlie Brown,” which is the most widely preformed play in the country, the Charlie Brown fever caught me. Fascinated and in order to understand the character of Charlie Brown better, I grabbed anything that had to do with Charlie Brown: whether from amazon, or target, or Barnes and Noble. The specials I couldn't get on dvd I watched at the Paley Center for Media.
1969: A Boy Named Charlie Brown
After some time I stumbled upon the first Charlie Brown film, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” The film enchanted me all the way through with its witty dialogue, its vibrant colors and animation, along with its soothing Vince Vagari score - for which the film was nominated an Academy Award. It starts off with Charlie, Lucy, and Linus watching the clouds in the sky past through their dreams. The film leads us through way to success for Charlie Brown as he is out to prove himself once and for all by winning a spelling bee. The movie has a simple plot, but considering the fact that Charlie has never won anything, you are held in constant suspense. Although it holds mainly the feel of the specials, it also has a pop art feel. The artistic animated sequences have also been compared to Walt Disney's “Fantasia,” while their elements both feature the thoughts and dreams, this film focuses on Shroder's and Charlie’s and Snoopi's dreams and perhaps even characterizing Charles Shultz's dreams and thoughts. The groovy songs and witty dialogue, however, are no cover for the inner sadness of Charlie Brown. The film was opened to theaters on December 4,1969 and was a success. I would even go so far as saying that this is one of the best animated films of all time, if not the best and deserves proper recognition. It would be the last time Peter Robins voiced Charlie Brown and he couldn't have picked a better way to end it of.
The 1970’s: Snoopy Come Home
In 1972 the second film in the franchise came out, “Snoopy Come Home!” Through this film audiences would see some changes to the peanuts world. First we have the debut of Snoopy's feathery friend and sidekick, Woodstock, along with the emergence of Peppermint Patty, as she was seen only briefly in the first film. Here Peppermint Patty was given a supporting part. In the film after her role thins. However, in “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” her role was a lead - and in the film after that her role outdid even Lucy’s. Vince Vangari would not return to write another score. Instead, they hired the Sherman Brothers to get a more musical- more Disney feel. The Sherman Bros wrote some groovy songs that you'll be humming for weeks. Yet, it just does not feel like the same thing. To begin with, Charlie and Snoopy aren't getting along anymore. He's become a real neighborhood nuisance, stealing Linus’ blanket, and beating up poor Lucy - although she arguably did deserve it. Snoopy is not even keeping his appointments. All that changes, however, when a letter arrives from his previous owner, Lila, who is ill and wants Snoopy to come see her. She asks him to stay with her and he agrees. He goes home to gather his belongings and a sorrowful goodbye to Charlie and his friends follows. Although the film has far wackier comedy than its predecessor, its inner theme will bring a tear to your eye. The film misses the voice of Peter Robins. Unlike its predecessor, it did not do well in the theaters but has since - due to multiple television viewings - become a cult classic. It is a fun, wacky, heart-warming musical animation masterpiece, I hope people will continue to view this film the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
The End of the Road
This next film, “Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown” (1977) features Charlie, Linus, Shroeder, and Franklin -a character who had success in the 70's, yet again, another example of how over-time changes effects film- Peppermint Patty, Lucy, Marcie, and Sally, along with Snoopy and Woodstock who are sent to summer camp to learn skills of leadership and crafts. However, the sun isn't always shining, especially when it comes to three mean (four if you count the cat) ruthlessly tormenting their experiences. A tale of adventure and excitement follows their trek down the river on a flimsy raft to show once and for all that they can beat those bullies! Times have changed and this is the 70's. This would be the first film after the death of Vince Vagari. This time we have a hip theme song that'll keep you off the ground. It's a fun film you should watch on a rainy day: funny dialogue, a good plot, fleshed out characters. In short, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In 1980, the Peanuts had reached its 30th anniversary. What better way to celebrate it than another feature film! The last to date: “Bon Voyage Charlie Brown and Don't Come Back.” It is a moving story of mystery, romance, and adventure. Charlie Brown, Linus, Peppermint Patty, and Marcie have been selected as exchange students. There Charlie Brown learns a story about his grandfather that neither I nor you will ever forget. The film could potentially have a sequel. It did, but only on television. The abrupt ending foretells it. Yet the Big Screen will perhaps never again have another Peanuts film delighting audiences. We can only wait to see what they have in stall for us on the little screen. But in my opinion we will never have a golden age of Peanuts ever again!
Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved!)