Friday, December 5, 2014

A Charlie Brown Christmas

In the last half of the 20th Century, Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts took America by storm on the comics page. The misadventures of Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy, his sister Sally, and their friends Lucy and Linus Van Pelt, Violet. Schroeder, Shermy, Frieda, and Pig Pen grabbed the the attention of readers.

The funny thing about Peanuts is that it offered an unapologetic harsh look at childhood. While Snoopy had his quirky adventures, Charlie Brown is often marginalized by the other characters, often believing himself to be a failure. The truth is that they love him, but he doesn't always feel it through all the picking on him that happens. Linus has a security blanket and sucks his thumb, and his sister Lucy is cruel to both him and Charlie Brown. Even Snoopy could be a little mean, throwing his typewriter at his naysayers. The result was a stylized and endearing comic strip that ran for 50 years and is still re-run through papers today. Despite its nastiness, it reminds us that even in bad times, friendship is all you need.

In 1965, Peanuts was animated for its first solo feature: a television Christmas special. Using simple animation based closely on the original comic strip and actual children voicing the characters, the Peanuts characters came fully to life for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In the special, Charlie Brown feels unhappy about Christmas. To help him get in the Christmas spirit, Lucy suggests he direct the school's Christmas play. However, few people seem to pay attention to him, and Charlie Brown eventually goes to get a Christmas tree for the play. He and Linus pick up a tiny tree that can barely support a single ornament, which makes him the laughingstock of the other characters. Frustrated, Charlie Brown says that he doesn't know what Christmas is all about, prompting Linus to recite the story of the angels telling the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. Charlie Brown then decides to take his tree home. The other kids follow him home and decorate the tree, making it magically come to life and grow into a modest tree. Charlie Brown joins them in singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!"

Looking at the plot critically, it's loose and hardly hangs together well, but I suspect the point was more to bring the Peanuts characters to animated life than to tell an amazing story. It has a pro-Christian, anti-commercialization stance, summed up as Christmas without love and feeling is pretty empty. This is summed up in a scene where Lucy asks Schroeder to play "Jingle Bells," and he plays a couple nicely orchestrated versions which she rejects. After asking him to add "Santa Claus, ho ho ho, mistletoe, and presents for pretty girls," he taps out the tune on a single key. She then yells approvingly, "THAT'S IT!"

Growing older, I kind of appreciate it more as you can forget to enjoy Christmas as you begin to focus more on clearing off your shopping list than enjoying the holiday.

There have been three animated follow-ups to A Charlie Brown Christmas. It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown and Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales adapt strips and plotlines from the strip into animation. Schulz wrote the former, but the latter was assembled after his death and hangs a bit more loosely. They do include popular characters who debuted after the first special, though, such as Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Franklin, and Linus and Lucy's little brother Rerun.

I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is a little more substantial. While it follows the pattern of the last two Christmas specials, there's a central plot with Rerun wanting a dog like Snoopy to play with.

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