Monday, August 31, 2015

A Boy Named Charlie Brown

Premiered November 4, 1969.

"Nothing ever seems to go right for me.  I can't fly a kite, and I lose every ballgame I play.  I just can't seem to do anything right."
-Charlie Brown

Life isn't easy for Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins).  He fails at kite flying.

His baseball team loses their first game of the season and Chuck is hit by a line drive!

Later, Linus (Glenn Gilger) tries to give Chuck a pep talk, telling his friend not to think of himself as a loser.  But during their conversation, Linus beats Charlie Brown in a game of tic-tac-toe. 
It seems that Chuck just can't win!  So he goes to Lucy (Pamelyn Ferdin) to seek some psychiatric help.
Lucy "helps" Chuck by pointing out all his faults.  She puts on a slide show that features pictures of how flawed he is.  When Charlie Brown tries to kick a football Lucy is holding, she pulls it away...and then shows Chuck a slow-motion instant replay of his failed attempt.  

Charlie Brown has hit rock-bottom when Linus suggests he enter the class spelling bee.  Lucy, Patty (Sally Dryer) and Violet (Ann Altieri) taunt Chuck and call him "failure face", believing he has no chance to win.
Linus & Snoopy help Chuck prepare for the spelling bee.
Charlie Brown surprises everyone when he wins the spelling bee.  His classmates carry him home on their shoulders.  This gains him entry in the school-wide spelling bee that will be held the next day.   Chuck is confident, but he's still having trouble memorizing the "I before E" rule.  He studies the dictionary with some help from Linus and Snoopy (Bill Melendez).

It pays off when Chuck wins the school spelling bee!  He believes his victory has given him a moment to relax and savor the good feelings.
But his success has earned him a trip to the National Spelling Bee in New York City.  Lucy see this as an opportunity for financial gain and decides to become Charlie Brown's agent.

When Charlie Brown departs for New York, Linus gives him his security blanket.  This turns out to be a mistake, because Linus is on the verge of a nervous breakdown without it.  He heads for New York to retrieve the blanket and Snoopy joins him.

But when Linus gets there, he discovers that Charlie Brown doesn't know where he put the blanket.  Snoopy and Linus go on a journey through New York City in search of the blanket and wind up empty handed.  At the same time, Chuck has been staying up all night preparing for the spelling bee (which takes place on the next day) and is sleep deprived, nearly to the point of delirium.

Will Charlie Brown win the National Spelling Bee?  Will Linus find his blanket?
Charlie Brown's first big screen appearance is still his best.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown shows Charles Schulz, Bill Mendelez and Lee Mendelson at the top of their game.

The movie opens with Chuck, Linus and Lucy looking at clouds.  Linus observes the clouds and sees all kinds of amazing things including one that "looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor" and another gives Linus "the impression of the Stoning of St. Stephen.  Heavy stuff for a "kids" cartoon.  Charlie Brown only sees ducks and horses.  

From there we get a sort of "greatest hits" of bits from the Peanuts strip and specials.  Charlie Brown plays baseball and gets hit by a comebacker.  Lucy pulls away the football from Chuck, Snoopy dreams he's a WWI flying ace.  

During the baseball game, Snoopy shows off his unique way of recording a put-out.
The selling bee story was almost completely original to the film.  Despite the fact that Charlie Brown feels like a loser at the end, he's actually a winner, at least on some level.  Chuck wins two local spelling bees just to make it too the national, no amount of taunting from other kids can take that away from him.

Linus comes across as a bit of jerk at times here, saying some awful things about his best friend Charlie Brown during the blanket search.  But it's  it's Linus who encourages Charlie Brown to enter the spelling bee.  Linus is also there to console Chuck at the end.

Something you don't see every day:Snoopy walking like a normal dog.
The voice cast does a great job with their roles.  This was the final performance of  Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown and he nails it.  Robbins aged out of his role after this, but I'm glad the original Chuck got to play him in the movie.  It would not have been as good without Robbins.

One thing that jumped out at me was how much this movie was influenced by the pop culture of the 1960s, something that you don't see in other Charlie Brown animation.  There's even signs that the filmmakers were paying attention to psychedelia and Pop Art.  Schroeder's Beethoven solo segment is particularly gorgeous and includes watercolors and collages.  It has a similar look to the Beatles' Yellow Submarine movie that was released the previous year.

When I watched this movie as a kid, I'll admit that I didn't really understand what was going on in the Beethoven sequence.  But it never failed to capture my attention.  It still looks amazing today and I'm surprised something like this ever made it into a film aimed at children.

Something else that was prominent in late-60s cinema was the use of split screens.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown features several scenes where this is nicely utilized.

And I love the way Linus' anxiety is depicted when he is without his blanket.

The creative team also makes nice use of New York locations, such as the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center ice rink.

The music featured in A Boy Named Charlie Brown is also excellent.

Vince Guaraldi provides some new music and we also get to hear some of his older tunes performed in unique ways.  Linus and Snoopy's late night blanket hunt is punctuated by a great minor key rendition of "Linus And Lucy."  Snoopy's skating/hockey fantasy sequence features a reprise of Guaraldi's "Skating" which originally appeared in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
This time it's done with a string section added on.  In the middle of "Skating", Snoopy imagines he's playing hockey and the soundtrack switches to an electric jazz tune written by John Scott Trotter.

This movie also features several new songs.  Singer-songwriter-poet Rod McKuen wrote and sang the main title song.  It does a nice job of capturing Chuck's never ending optimisim in the face of failure, even if some of the lyrics don't accurately describe the character. 

McKuen also penned the mean-spirited but still amusing "Failure Face."  Lucy, Violet and Patty are Chuck's biggest detractors and this song is the verbal equivalent of a punch to the face.  McKuen said he wrote it because "kids are mean" and this song certainly shows that.  It's still a very fun and catchy song.  McKuen's final song, "Champion Charlie Brown" can be called the opposite side of the "Failure Face" coin.  Some of the kids who celebrate his victory are the same kids who called him a failure before the spelling bee.  

The fourth song "I Before E" was written by the aforementioned John Scott Trotter, who also served as the arranger for the soundtrack.  It's sort of a chant, featuring seemingly endless variations on I-E words.  While Chuck and Linus are "talking" the lyrics, Snoopy accompanies them on jaw harp, which is a nice touch.

There's little to criticize in this film.  But after recently watching for the first time in a while, I noticed that Snoopy's Red Baron dream is actually animation that was originally featured in It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Maybe the budget was running low and they were pressured by studio to add Red Baron at the last minute?  It doesn't ruin the movie, but it's a bit disappointing and distracting.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown can be found on dvd, it was reissued this past February.

I'm very excited about the new Peanuts movie that will be released later this year and I hope it's good.  But I doubt it will top A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which I enjoy as much as I did when I first watched it 40 years ago.  This is up there with the best Charlie Brown animation of all time, just a notch below the Christmas and Halloween specials.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 Sparkys!

Friday, August 28, 2015

It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown.

Premiered September 27, 1969.

Lucy:I've signed everyone up for Summer camp!
Boys:Camp?  Everyone?
Lucy:There's to be no discussion and no need to thank me.
Charlie Brown: I feel like I've been drafted.

Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) and his classmates are assigned an essay.  Their teacher Miss Halverson says must write a 500-word theme about how they spent their Summer vacation.  Chuck and Linus flash back to how it began:

School has just ended, Charlie Brown, Linus (Glenn Gilger), Schroeder (John Daschback) and Shermy (David Carey) are discussing how they plan to spend their Summer reading comics, watching TV and playing piano.  

The kids rush out on the last day of school.
But Lucy (Pamelyn Ferdin) arrives and announces she has enrolled all of them in Summer Camp!  No one is happy about this, especially Linus.  Lucy's brother is terrified he'll be attacked by queen snakes. 

The boys react (poorly) when Lucy tells them she signed them up for camp.
When the kids arrive at camp, they are separated by gender.  Charlie Brown is the leader of his team.  They compete with a team of girls in various games and contests.  The girls team is led by Lucy, with Peppermint Patty (Christopher DeFaria) serving as her lieutenant.    

Charlie Brown's team challenges the girls to a swimming race.  But the boys are is easily defeated. 

Charlie Brown is undaunted and challenges the girls to a game of softball.  This results in the boys losing 43-1.  

Peppermint Patty wins her team the first at-bat by using "eagle claws!"
   After more losses, Charlie Brown and his team are despondent. 

But Chuck gets an idea for a final challenge:wrist wrestling.  The boys' team selects the Masked Marvel, who is actually Snoopy in disguise, as their wrist wrestler.  The beagle begins a strict training regimen.  When the girls are challenged, Lucy selects herself to represent her team.  

The two wrestlers have an intense wrist duel.  They're evenly matched, but one has a secret weapon that will decide the match.

The Masked Marvel vs. Lucy!
 Can the Masked Marvel finally win a contest for the boys?  Will Linus be eaten by a queen snake?   Will Charlie Brown be able to complete the 500-word assignment?  

It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown is not up there with the best Peanuts specials, but it's solid fun the whole time.  Most of the original voice cast had aged out of their roles, with the exception of Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown.  But the new voice actors do a fine job.  
The boys aren't impressed with the camp food...

...but Snoopy has alternate sources of nourishment!
There are two lines of dialogue that mark this special as a product of the 1960s.  Sally (Hilary Momberger) says she wants "a deferment" from Kindergarten and Chuck says he feels like he's been drafted when Lucy signs him up for Summer Camp.  The Vietnam War and the draft were still part of every day life when It Was A Short Summer first aired, so "drafted" and "deferment" were household words. 

Producer-Director Bill Melendez began his career as an animator for the Disney, UPA and Warner Brothers studios.  I felt like this special had more classic "cartoony" images than other Charlie Brown outings, perhaps influenced by Melendez' past.  For instance, Chuck says Sally will jump 30 feet in the air if anyone mentions Kindergarten.  Lucy tests that theory, which results in this odd-looking image of a stretched-out Sally:

And we get a humorous reaction from Charlie Brown when he accidentally burns his marshmellow:

Speaking of animation, Schulz said his favorite animation of all time was Snoopy and Lucy's wrist wrestling match.  This scene still looks great today, 46 years after the special first aired.  

Snoopy's bus driving fantasy sequence includes some hidden jokes.  We see a map that includes place names like Schulz City...

and La Ciudad De Melendez: 

These are obvious (but cool) references to Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and the aforementioned Melendez.  I also think it's funny that Snoopy imagines other vehicles he passes are being driven by dogs!

Linus & Chuck play Hangman.  Check out the detail in the pictures on the classroom wall!
 Vince Guaraldi's music is great as usual.  His trio had expanded by this point and includes saxophones, flutes and horns.  The new theme music Guaraldi wrote for the special is very catchy and will be stuck in your head for a while.   

As part of his training, Snoopy wrist-wrestles a bird that looks like it could be Woodstock's tougher brother!
One of the unusual things about this special is that the girls' team includes both Peppermint Patty...and Patty (Lisa DeFaria).  Confused?  Patty was featured in the very first Peanuts comic strip and was often featured in the cast into the 1960s.  

Something rarely seen:Patty (left) and Peppermint Patty on screen at the same time, with Violet (Ann Altieri) in the middle.
Schulz later said he grew bored with Patty, which explains why she could be replaced by a character with a similar name.  There's a scene here where Lucy calls Peppermint Patty "Patty," which adds to the confusion.  It's also worth noting that Patty is voiced by Lisa DeFaria, while Peppermint Patty is voiced by Lisa's brother Christopher.    

The girls attempt to cheer up the boys by singing campfire songs.
If I have any criticism of the special, it's the way the camp contests are presented.  The girls beat the boys in swimming and then softball.  But we don't see the softball game.  The kids talk about the game...and the next thing we see is the boys mourning their loss.  It doesn't ruin the special, but it violates the "show don't tell" rule of visual media and it's disappointing.  
The girls march onto the bus with military-style precision...

...while the boys are a bit less organized.

 Vince Guaraldi's music is great as usual.  His trio had expanded by this point and includes saxophones, flutes and horns.  The new theme music Guaraldi wrote for the special is very catchy and will be stuck in your head for a while.   

As part of his training, Snoopy wrist-wrestles a bird that could be Woodstock's tougher brother!
This special is available on dvd as part of Peanuts 1960s collection and also streams on Amazon and iTunes

It Was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown is a fun special from the "classic" era of Peanuts specials and it serves as nice "end of summer" entertainment.  

J.A. Morris' rating:
3 and a half Sparkys