Saturday, June 30, 2018

A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1964 documentary)

"Charlie Brown is, I think a little bit like everyone.  We all need reassurance that some people really do like us.  But I guess Charlie Brown is mostly me. That’s why he often has that dumb expression on his face."
-Charles Schulz

This review is a bit of a change from my usual content.  I recently received a DVD of the documentary A Boy Named Charlie Brown (not to be confused with the 1969 theatrical film of the same name) and thought it was worth writing up, since it includes early Peanuts animation and was the first time Charles Schulz, Bill Melendez, Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi collaborated.  
This documentary was produced in 1964 but never aired on television.  It's historically important because without it, all the Charlie Brown specials that followed wouldn't have been produced, or would have been very different.  Melendez and Schulz previously worked together on Ford commercials, but the rest were new collaborators.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown shows us "a day in the life of Charles M. Schulz."  Mendelson and company film Schulz drawing his comic strip, going through fan letters and driving his kids to school.

A high point features footage of Schulz' appearance at Charlie Brown Day, held on May 14, 1964 at Candlestick Park.  Schulz threw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to a game between the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets.

I love these old school Peanuts toys!:

Short animated sequences are shown every few minutes during the film.  It opens with Charlie Brown attempting to play a piano, only to be told his playing is "terrible."

Other animation includes:

Snoopy's attempted theft of Linus' blanket.

Charlie Brown tries to fly a kite.

Lucy pulls the football away when Chuck attempts to kick it!

Schroeder plays piano while Lucy tries to attract his attention.

The animation is a slight step down from the TV specials that followed, but it looks pretty good considering their budget was tiny and the creative team was figuring how to translate the characters into a new medium.  As the screencaps above show, the cartoon segments give us some of Peanuts "greatest hits" up to that point.

At this time, this DVD is only available for purchase at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and the museum's online gift shop.

Since A Boy Named Charlie Brown is different from what I normally feature here, I won't use my usual "Sparky" rating.  However, it's highly recommended for any hardcore fans of Peanuts.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown

Premiered February 23, 1978.


On a snowy day, Charlie Brown (Liam Martin) tries to get Snoopy (Bill Melendez) to pull him on a sled.

When the beagle isn't interested, Chuck tries to explain how sled dogs in the Arctic pull sleds.  Charlie Brown ends up pulling the sled with Snoopy cracking the whip!

That evening, Snoopy makes several pizzas and a milkshake and consumes it all in one sitting.  When Charlie Brown observes this, he tells Snoopy that he's become too civilized.

Since he ate all the food right before bedtime, the huge meal results in a very scary nightmare for Snoopy.

He dreams he's a sled dog in the Arctic, working with six other dogs pulling a sled.  The dogs are ruled by a man with a whip who isn't very nice to any of the dogs.  The other dogs are much bigger and faster than Snoopy and the beagle is in way over his head.

The sled dogs are mean to Snoopy.  When it's time for food and water, they lunge and growl at him when he attempts to grab some food.  It's a miserable life for Snoopy who is freezing in the arctic cold.

Snoopy gets a break from this torturous life when the dogs' owner stops in a small town.  Snoopy hits the local saloon in search of root beer and a meal.  He sits down at a player piano and is mistaken for a piano player.  This gets the beagle a sandwich, a mug of root beer and lots of tip money.

Snoopy decides to gamble the money in a poker game.  When he has a winning hand of four Aces, his poker face gives him away.  This enrages the other gamblers and a brawl breaks out.  Snoopy seeks a hiding place and winds up on a performance stage, dancing the can-can.  The audience doesn't find him entertaining, so Snoopy is thrown out of the saloon and winds up back on the sled.

Will Snoopy awaken from this horrible nightmare?


According to the (highly-recommended) book The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation, What A Nightmare Charlie Brown was one of Charles Schulz' favorite specials and was equally beloved by director Bill Melendez.  It was inspired by a Schulz family trip to Alaska where they observed sled dogs.

I can't say that I agree with Schulz.  This special features beautiful animation.  The dogs and the Arctic setting look great.  Plus, Snoopy's interactions with Charlie Brown and his trip to the saloon are enjoyable.  Otherwise, What A Nightmare (bad word-play intended) left me cold.

As I've mentioned in earlier reviews, my favorite Peanuts specials are the ones that feature the cast of characters interacting with each other.  In this special, we get only two of the regular characters and they only share a few minutes of screen time.  The rest of it features only dog barks and the trombone voice of the sled dogs' cruel owner.

Since we witness Snoopy fall asleep, it's obvious that he's dreaming and that he'll be okay in the end.

Bill Melendez provides great dog noises for Snoopy.  Liam Martin is good as Charlie Brown.  This is Martin's only outing as Chuck, but he voiced Linus and Schroeder in other specials, which I believe makes him the only actor to play all three of those characters.

Ed Bogas composed the music for What A Nightmare.  It's similar to the country-themed score Bogas wrote for Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (which was released the previous year).  The music is fine for the most part and suitable for the special's arctic setting.  Larry Finlayson sings a humorous song (written by Bogas) about Snoopy's overly-civilized life. 

This special streams on Amazon and has been released on a DVD set called Peanuts 1970s Collection, Vol. 2.

What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown is primarily recommended for die-hard Snoopy and like all Peanuts specials from the 1970s, it's worth watching at least once.  But it's small cast of characters and lack of dialogue prevents me from giving it a higher rating.

J.A. Morris' rating:


2 and a half Sparkys. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

It's A Mystery, Charlie Brown

Premiered February 1, 1974.

Woodstock (Bill Melendez) has built a brand new nest and is very proud of it.

However, disaster soon strikes when his nest disapears!  Woodstock's best friend Snoopy (Melendez again) puts on his detective costume and helps the bird investigate the case of the missing nest.

At the same time, Sally Brown (Lynn Mortensen) is cracking up due to pressures at school.  Her science teacher has assigned Sally to bring in "something from nature" to be used in a science exhibit. Sally vows to show the teacher "the best exhibit she's ever seen!"

Snoopy and Woodstock begin their search for the nest by interrogating Charlie Brown (Todd Barbee).

When that proves fruitless, they visit the homes of Lucy (Melanie Kohn) and Linus (Stephen Shea), Peppermint Patty (Donna Forman), Pigpen (Tom Muller) and Marcy (Jimmy Arens).

Their search comes up empty at every house, and Snoopy is terrorized by Peppermint Patty, who thinks the beagle wants to play "Cops and Robbers."

Their exhaustive investigation leads them to Birchwood School.  They find Woodstock's nest in the science lab.  They learn it was taken by Sally because she needed it for her assignment.

Snoopy rescues the nest and returns it to its proper place.  Woodstock has his nest, but now Sally has nothing for her science class.

Sally decides to sue Woodstock and force him to return the nest.  Woodstock hires Snoopy to represent him as his attorney.  The presiding judge in the case will be none other than Lucy Van Pelt! Lucy converts her psychiatrist booth into a court of law.

How will "Judge Lucy" rule on the case?  Will Woodstock lose his home?  Will Sally flunk her science assignment?

J.A. Morris says:
The plot of It's A Mystery, Charlie Brown is pretty thin, but it's fun and entertaining enough.  This is one of those specials that consists of "Peanuts characters do funny stuff" and that's about it.  But that's okay.

Snoopy's "Sherlock Holmes" costume is amusing.  His interactions with Marcy, Peppermint Patty and the Van Pelt siblings is humorous.  Peppermint Patty is depicted as being a bit crazier than usual and their "Cops and Robbers" game is a high point of the special.

Woodstock gets put through the ringer in the first few minutes.  He loses his nest and is nearly washed away in a rain storm, which might upset some younger viewers.

It's worth noting that Snoopy and Woodstock are the only characters onscreen for the first five minutes.  This means that the only "dialogue" during that time consists of bird and dog noises made by Bill Melendez.  This didn't bother me, but some viewers might find this a bit unnerving.

The animation is excellent, the animators and production team were really hitting their stride when It's A Mystery, Charlie Brown was produced.  The rainstorm that Woodstock encounters is particularly gorgeous.  I love the way storm clouds are drawn to look like they were drawn by a child using the edge of a pencil lead.

The voice actors here are mostly good.  Since Woodstock and Snoopy are the leads, that means Bill Melendez has to do a bit more squawking than usual.  He is more than up to the task.

It's A Mystery, Charlie Brown was created near the end of  Vince Guaraldi's life, when his music was changing.  The soundtrack features lots of funky, electric guitar and electric keyboard.  Some of it was later re-used in It's the Easter Beagle Charlie Brown. It's not the same music Guaraldi was playing in the early specials, but I love it!

This special has been released on the DVD titled Peanuts:The 1970s Collection Vol. 1.  It also streams on Amazon video.

It's a Mystery Charlie Brown is hardly a classic, but it's got enough funny moments and great Guaraldi music to warrant repeated viewings.  Especially recommended for die-hard fans of Woodstock.

J.A. Morris' rating:


3 and a half Sparkys.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

You're A Good Man Charlie Brown

Premiered November 6, 1985.

"Did you know that Charlie Brown has never pitched a winning baseball game, never been able to keep a kite in the air, never won a game of checkers and never successfully punted a football? Sometimes I marvel at his consistency."

I'm dropping my usual format since this special is a bit different from most.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the premier of the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, so I thought it would be a good time to revisit the animated TV adaptation.

A little background for those who unfamiliar with the show.  You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown began as a 1966 album of songs based on the comic strip.  It was produced as an Off-Broadway musical in 1967, with dialogue added in between the songs.  It was highly successful and ran until 1971.

This TV special was produced nearly twenty years after the stage show.  As Peanuts historian Nat Gertler notes in the DVD's bonus documentary, this animated special is an adaptation of the Off-Broadway show, which adapted the album, which adapted the comic strip!

You're A Good Man could be described as "Peanuts' Greatest Hits, with songs and dancing!"  There's no unifying story, just a series of vignettes that cover such Peanuts tropes as Charlie Brown's team losing baseball games...

Chuck failing to fly a kite...

The gang struggling to write book reports...

Lucy leaning on Schroeder's piano and expressing love for him...

Charlie Brown pining over the Little Red-Haired Girl, but afraid to talk to her, etc.

One interesting aspect is that since it was produced in the 1980s, we get to see Schroeder using a personal computer to type his book report.

While typing his book report, Schroeder also imagines a video game, so we're treated to animation that depicts 80s-style graphics.

It makes this special an interesting product of its time.

I'm generally not a fan of Broadway musicals.  However, I've seen a live production of You're A Good Man and I've always felt its songs, written by Clark Gesner are pretty good.

The closing song "Happiness" is probably the most famous song of the musical and deservedly so.  It's a nice list of little things that bring smiles to our faces and help us get through tough days.  As an adult, I can tell you that when you've had a bad day "two kinds of ice cream" may not solve all your problems, but they can help you see that tomorrow may be different and better.  It should be noted that since this special runs just under an hour, some songs from the stage musical are not included.

Snoopy gets two numbers, "Supper Time" is my favorite of the pair.

Unlike the stage musical, which cast adults as Charlie Brown and friends, Melendez and Mendelson continue their practice of using children to voice the characters.  All of the voice-actors do a good job with their characters. Charlie Brown has a different voice-actor for speaking and singing parts, with Brad Kesten (who voiced Charlie Brown in several other specials) voicing Chuck's dialogue and Kevin Brando performing the songs.  The creative team did a nice job casting actors with similar voices.

It's worth noting that this is the first time Snoopy gets a "speaking" voice.  In addition to Bill Melendez' usual dog noises, Robert Towers (an adult voice actor) provides the beagle's singing voice, and speaks for Snoopy when we hear his thoughts.  Towers played Snoopy in a stage production and his voice is a good match for the character.

It looks like the producers gave a little more effort than usual, perhaps out of reverence for the musical.  The animation looks great.  There's a particularly beautiful sunset scene where the background looks like watercolor painting.

This special has been released on DVD and it's also available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes.

You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown isn't among the best Peanuts specials, but it's a good adaptation of the beloved musical with good voice-actors and better-than-average animation.

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 Sparkys.