Author's Note: I've included side-by-side screen shots of the 2000 Paramount release of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (on the left) and this newly remastered Warner release on the right, for comparison purposes.
Warner Bros. delivers another scrubbed-up Peanuts classic with the new A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - Remastered Deluxe Edition disc. Color and picture clarity have been greatly improved over the previous 2000 Paramount disc, and there's a short documentary on the feature included here for those who may wish to double dip. The bonus film, The Mayflower Voyagers, from the 1988 miniseries of Peanuts toons, This is America, Charlie Brown, is the same bonus short that was included on the earlier Paramount disc, but it's been cleaned up, as well.
In case you've been living on the Moon, I'll give a very brief synopsis of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Charlie Brown (voice of Todd Barbee), after having humiliated himself yet again by falling for Lucy's (voice of Robin Kohn) old football trick, looks forward to another depressing holiday: Thanksgiving. It's bad enough about the football, but then he sees that Snoopy (voice of Bill Melendez) gets more mail than he does, and he soon discovers from his sister Sally (voice of Hilary Momberger) that the stores already have Christmas items for sale (back when that was considered early for putting stuff out). Adding to his existential troubles is the fact that Peppermint Patty (voice of Christopher DeFaria) calls up on Thanksgiving Day, and invites herself over for dinner...along with Marcie (voice of Jimmy Ahrens) and Franklin (voice of Robin Reed). But Charlie Brown's family already has plans to go to his grandmother's home for the day, so it's up to Linus (voice of Stephen Shea) to come up with a plan - with the help of Snoopy and his bird-brained pal, Woodstock (voice of Bill Melendez) - to save Charlie's holiday.
I've written before about the Peanuts gang, and of course, what primarily interests me now with these TV specials is my own nostalgia factor, weighed against the reaction of my kids to these perennial favorites. Anyone growing up in the late 60s, early 70s remembers what a comparative "wasteland" primetime network TV was for kids-oriented fare. You had the groundbreaking The Flintstones and a few other prime-time cartoon series here and there, but overall, before cable, VCRs and DVDs provided 24-hour-a-day toons, it was a rare event to see a cartoon on prime time network TV. Holidays were probably your best bet, and certainly the Peanuts specials took on an almost quasi-religious aspect for most kids' "must-see" TV schedules (that paucity of prime-time network kids programming, I'm sure, is what cemented these particular toons, at that particular time in TV history, so firmly into our pop culture). Nobody missed a Peanuts special.
Today, of course, with myriad internet, cable and home media options, it's difficult if not impossible to ratchet up that kind of viewer consensus for any show, and recent ratings for ABC's airings of Peanuts specials bears that out (a few paltry million on average, compared to routinely tens of millions for the original 70s broadcasts). While parents who grew up during that original Peanuts era probably still view the specials as de rigueur holiday experiences, they're more likely to pop in a disc than sit through the edited, commercial-laden network broadcasts. And my kids are no different. I don't think we've ever watched the classic Peanuts specials on network TV; it's always been video or disc.
Which brings us to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. First aired on November 20, 1973, the short is now widely regarded as one of the "Big Three" of the classic Peanuts specials, which probably isn't surprising since the holiday it celebrates appears right in the middle of that holiday "roll" that comes one right after the other in the fall and winter, for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. And while A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving isn't the equal of either the superlative A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (nor even the underrated Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown), it's relatively amusing while conveying enough of the "Schulz touch" to be recognizable as one of the "classic" outings with the Peanuts gang.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving's biggest problem is that it's structured too closely along the lines of the better A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both feature Charlie Brown fretting about a depressing holiday coming up, with Charlie Brown then having to provide some kind of event in conjunction with the holiday (the play and the tree in Christmas, an impromptu dinner for Thanksgiving) - an event that of course falls short, thus ticking off the gang (Lucy is the main complainer in Christmas; here, it's Peppermint Patty). Then, with Charlie Brown at his lowest, he's given a pep talk by one of the quieter characters (Linus in Christmas, Marcie in Thanksgiving) who explains the real reason for the season, and lifts his spirits. Except for some minor differences here and there, they could be the same cartoon.
Which is fine, if A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving could hold its own with the beautifully modulated, surprisingly emotional A Charlie Brown Christmas. But it can't, and its similarity to the superior Christmas short only points out A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving's weaknesses. While Schulz's patented cruelty towards the forever put-upon Charlie Brown is on display again for Thanksgiving (not only do his friends invite themselves over, but then they have the nerve to complain about the food he serves them), its motivation seems arbitrary and rote here. In the Christmas special, the children razz Charlie Brown constantly, but when he brings that admittedly pathetic tree to the play, that's their cue to really lay into Charlie Brown. Of course they can't see the cruelty in what they're doing (what little kid does?), and they eventually understand how truly kind Charlie Brown is, but the first sight of that little twig of a tree would probably set most kids off. In Thanksgiving, however, the basic premise of Patty inviting herself and the other kids over to Chuck's seems forced and non-organic to the story (to further bolster the thin premise, a parent's okay is thrown in by Patty when she speaks to Chuck over the phone - a story crutch that seems strangely out of place in the normally adult-less Peanuts world). And her outraged reaction to a meal that most little kids would probably love (popcorn, jelly beans, pretzels, toast (?), and some kind of ice cream drink) seems calculated only to follow the pattern of abuse/redemption that was established in Christmas. And while Christmas is secure enough in itself to let the audience discover for themselves that Charlie Brown's concern for the little tree was the only true expression of the real Christmas spirit, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving clumsily insists on Marcie spelling everything out for the audience with her literal dressing-down of Patty's rude behavior and her obvious declaration of Charlie Brown's essential goodness.
Still, whenever Snoopy is on in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the film picks up considerable energy, and he's more than enough to push the short into the plus column. The Snoopy craze of the early 70s was really peaking at this point, so it's not surprising he has a much more central role here than even Charlie Brown. His centerpiece sequences including the fight with the folding lawn chair and his efforts to make toast and popcorn never fail to get the kids squealing with laughter, while the film's final "gotcha" gag - Snoopy and Woodstock had a huge turkey and pumpkin pie in his dog house all along, while poor Charlie Brown suffered - fits in nicely with Schulz' essentially pessimistic world view. Finally, despite the drawbacks of the short's script, it's almost impossible to dislike A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving when Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi lays down some sweet, mellow autumnal sounds, along with the decidedly un-Thanksgiving-sounding Little Birdie song that comes out of nowhere and almost lifts the short up with the best of the Peanuts classics.
As you can see from the side-by-side screen comparisons, Warner Bros. (who now controls the Peanuts shorts) has done an excellent job of brightening up the full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - Remastered Deluxe Edition. Colors haven been corrected, with the skin tones noticeably more natural (the overcompensating red was toned down), while background colors are much more saturated. Fine detail is more apparent (the black lines that suggest blades of grass are much more sharp, for example), while the overall sharpness of the picture is improved (the old Paramount transfer looks slightly blown, too). The disc also has been flagged, so interlacing isn't a problem anymore (pretty noticeable on the Paramount disc). Dirt specks, many of which look to be from the original animation process, are still there, so a total digital clean-up has not been performed - although, I'm of a mind that I'd like to still see those inherent flaws, because it makes the film look more authentic. That dirt is part of the charm of these quickly-animated films.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - Remastered Deluxe Edition works just fine, with crisp, clean dialogue heard throughout (although I would like to hear that wonderful music in some kind of stereo arrangement at some point). Japanese and Portuguese mono tracks are also included, and English, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles are available.
In addition to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, there's a second short subject, The Mayflower Voyagers, from 1988, that's included here (it was also on the 2000 Paramount disc). It's been cleaned up, as well, and it's a nice compliment to the A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - Remastered Deluxe Edition feature.
There's also a brief (12:26) documentary on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Popcorn and Jellybeans: Making a Thanksgiving Classic, produced this year, which features sound bites from the late Bill Melendez (the director of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving), producer Lee Mendelson, animator Phil Roman, voice talent Todd Barbee, Hilary Momberger, Christopher DeFaria, relatives Jeannie and Monte Schulz, and historian Scott McGuire discussing the film. Honestly, there's not much they can say of substance about A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving because it's admittedly lightweight - which is just about the impression they give of it.
Not in the top tier of the classic Peanuts animated TV specials, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving resembles the superior A Charlie Brown Christmas too much for my comfort. But there's no denying that Snoopy, as usual, makes the show worthwhile - as does the beautiful score by Vince Guaraldi. Warner Bros. has done an excellent job of restoring this 35-year-old short (although if they really want to do a complete restoration job, they'll reinsert those great Dolly Madison® commercials - fans would love that), so if you're a big fan of Peanuts, you can safely upgrade with this good-looking deluxe edition. I recommend the A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - Remastered Deluxe Edition disc.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.