The first of four theatrical features produced in the wake of annual television specials, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) is Charles M. Schulz's mostly successful adaptation of his Peanuts comic strip. Unlike his timeless four-panel cartoons (and the seminal holiday special that preceded the movie, A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965), the movie has dated badly in some respects and is crudely padded, but overall it captures the humor of the strip and its characters. It is by far the best of the Peanuts movies despite - or perhaps precisely because of - its pervasive melancholia.
A perennial loser plagued with feelings of inadequacy, Charlie Brown (voiced by Peter Robbins) can't fly a kite without crashing it to the ground or into a (perpetually hungry) tree. His baseball team never gets a hit, let alone wins a game. His irreverent, independently-minded dog Snoopy (Bill Melendez, also the film's director), holds his master in low esteem, ignoring him except at supper time when he demands to be fed.
But Charlie Brown surprises his classmates when he wins his school's spelling bee and eventually advances to the national championship. Ambitious, self-involved Lucy (Pamelyn Ferdin) becomes his "agent," while philosophical Linus (Glenn Gilger) gives Charlie Brown his prized security blanket as a token of good luck, a decision he'll soon regret. But will Charlie Brown remember "I" before "E," except after "C?"
A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a very good 70-minute movie stretched to a not-so-great 86 minutes. With the death, more or less, of B-movies by the end of the sixties, films not supported by second features were generally expected to run at least 80-85 minutes. Perhaps Schulz wrote and/or wanted a shorter movie, but the economics of movie exhibition forced him and longtime collaborator Melendez to compromise.
The padded scenes obviously are just that. Charlie Brown's first baseball game of the season is preceded by a montage featuring the national anthem, while other scenes stop dead for badly-integrated Broadway-style songs written (and sometimes performed) by Rod McKuen - songs that are at odds with the more familiar jazz themes of Vince Guaraldi. (McKuen's songs also are sentimental, something Peanuts never was.)
Most incongruously of all, there's a heavily-orchestrated title song sung by McKuen that's as hopelessly stuck in the sixties as the film's overuse of split screen and psychedelic optical printing effects.** (Yet another song, "I Before E," by John Scott Trotter, is like something out of Sesame Street.)
Of all this extraneous material, only one segment pays off, though it too stops the narrative cold: intellectual musician Schroeder (Andy Pforsich) on his piano plays Beethoven's beautiful Pathetique Sonata against a series of abstract images, a sequence that probably bored many kids out of their skulls but charmed an equal number of adults.
Still, the film deserves points for keeping the tone of Schulz's cartoons, partly by not imposing too strong a plot on the characters, letting instead little vignettes in the spirit of the strip unfold at a leisurely pace. The focus on Charlie Brown and his depression and insecurities is so anti-Disney that it's almost heroic. The next feature, Snoopy Come Home (1972) spends far too much time following that limited if popular character and its conventional spoof of Lassie-type stories. The later, lesser films were much more ensemble pieces heavily driven by story.
Video & Audio
A Boy Named Charlie Brown is presented in a 16:9 transfer at 1.77:1 that shows its age in terms of tepid color, dirt, and a general blahness. (The film appears to have been produced for 1.66:1 theatrical projection, based on the framing of the end titles.) Originally a National General Release (via Cinema Center Films), it's hard to say what film elements DVD distributor Paramount had to work with, and also how much of the dirt and so forth is inherent to the original animation (smudgy animation cells, etc.). In keeping with the visual style of Schulz's strip, backgrounds lack a lot of detail, and lines tend to be thick and heavy. This adapts well to television, but on a big screen can easily be misinterpreted as budget-driven cheapness.
The DVD itself is no-frills. The 5.1 and Dolby Surround stereo tracks are nice (with some directional dialogue), but there are no alternate language tracks or subtitles, and no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Charlie Brown's leap from the comics page to television and finally the big screen happily retains the key components that made the strip so special in the first place. Despite its faults, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a good film for the whole family, and a great alternative to ordinary cartoons.
Note: You can read Randy Miller III's review of the second Peanuts movie, Snoopy Come Home, here
**Twice during the film characters say, "It's Sidney or the bush!" This reviewer confesses to having absolutely no idea what that means. Addendum: DVD Talk Member Aleck Bennett writes, "This is an Australian saying meaning 'all or nothing.' It's not 'Sidney or the bush,' it's 'Sydney or the bush,' meaning that it's either everything (represented by the 'Big Smoke' that is Sydney) or nothing (the vast expanses of the bush, or outback). I'm not sure why it's used in the context of a Peanuts film, but perhaps this was a more universally-known phrase back in '69." Thanks, Aleck.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.