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!

1 comment:

  1. I sure hope the new Peanuts movie is the classic animation, not CGI!