Few would argue that the mid-1960s was the Golden Age of the television holiday special, a time when, three years running, the gold standards of such shows originally aired: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), the first and best of innumerable Rankin-Bass stop-motion puppet shows; How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), the classic Dr. Seuss & Chuck Jones collaboration that led to more adaptations; and, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), which from humble beginnings launched an multi-media subsidiary of TV specials and theatrical features based on Charles M. "Sparky" Schulz's long-running (1950-2000) daily newspaper strip.
Peanuts Deluxe Holiday Collection is a Blu-ray set top-lining three perennially popular specials: A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) and, less well-known, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973). Though not emphasized on the packaging, the set actually includes six half-hour specials in all, with three "bonus episodes" also in 1080p high-def: It's Magic, Charlie Brown (1981), The Mayflower Voyagers (from an eight-part miniseries entitled This is America, Charlie Brown, 1988), and It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992). Also included (and obviously all done the same time) are previously released featurettes about the making of the three main specials. Each set comes with a standard-def DVD version as well, and each set is available for purchase separately, though buying all three at once is much less expensive if you're considering getting more than one.
Like Schulz's strip, the Peanuts specials evolved over time, not necessarily for the better. The first special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, is still far and away the best. Lee Mendelson, a documentary filmmaker, and director José Cuauhtémoc "Bill" Meléndez, a prolific animator of television commercials hurriedly cobbled together in just six months, working in close collaboration with Schulz. They made all the right decisions.
They eschewed the established holiday special mold at nearly every turn. For starters, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost certainly the first narrative program, comedy or drama, animation or live-action, to grapple with issues of depression brought on by expecations of the season, in this case Charlie Brown's malaise exacerbated by the commercialization of Christmas and fueled by low self-esteem. Hanna-Barbera this was not.
There was no laugh track and, contrary to the way animated programs are usually done, real children - not adults masquerading as children - provided all the voices. Unlike the safely secular Grinch and Rankin-Bass shows, at Schulz's insistence A Charlie Brown Christmas specifically quotes from the Gospel of Luke, with Linus directly quoting from the King James Bible. And while Vince Guaraldi's jazz score, especially "Linus and Lucy," quickly became as intertwined with the Peanuts universe as Woodstock and Peppermint Patty, in 1965 the juxtaposition of a cartoon show about middle-class (and mostly white) children and pianist Guaraldi's groovy compositions was revolutionary.
Despite a low budget - reportedly $150,000, peanuts (ahem) for a 25-minute cartoon - resulting in some shoddily-executed animation*, everything about it plays beautifully. The voices of the children are well-cast, so much so that on subsequent specials Mendelson and Meléndez had to make an effort to match their characteristics once the children grew older and had to be replaced. Some of the kids were so young, particularly the little girl voicing Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally, that their lines were fed to them bit-by-bit and pieced together later during the sound editing phase. Some dislike this choppy effect but I find it oddly authentic, more effective than later shows when a larger percentage of professionally-trained kids were utilized.
It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is nearly as good, exploring as it does Linus's unwavering faith in the Santa Claus-like "Great Pumpkin." In the documentary, Linus's church-of-one is praised as somehow admirable, but I find him instead more benignly delusional. ("Not at all," counters reader Sergei Hasenecz. "For instance, kids with imaginary friends are not delusional. Adults forget how powerful a child's imagination can be, and how much they want to believe magical things." Good point.)
The later specials are entertaining and, to be fair, are in line with the changing tone of Schulz's strip, but I sorely miss the adult angst and other psychoses expressed through those kids, a real innovation that dominated Peanuts in its prime. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is less like A Charlie Brown Christmas than it is like an old Our Gang short, with the little boy with the big round head scrambling to make a Thanksgiving feast when Peppermint Patty (revealed to be voiced by a boy in the documentary) invites herself over for dinner. Mayflower Voyagers tries to be educational, a different approach, while It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown is little more than a big batch of four-panel strips strung together.
Easily the worst show of the set is It's Magic, Charlie Brown. Though its teleplay is credited to Schulz, it breaks several rules of his own Peanuts universe: outright fantasy is introduced (as opposed to imagined reality, like Snoopy's Flying Ace adventures in Great Pumpkin) when Snoopy literally makes Charlie Brown invisible and can't change him back. Worse, in his invisible state, Charlie Brown finally gets to kick that elusive football away from Lucy's sly grip - something that never happened in the comic strip.
Video & Audio
The impact of seeing these full-frame shows in 1080p high-def is slight but noticeable. There's not so much an improved sharpness as richer color (particularly the backgrounds), especially on Great Pumpkin and Thanksgiving, which enjoyed higher budgets. However, constant shadows between the animation cels and the backgrounds are now highly visible. Network airings have hacked these specials to pieces through the years and it's refreshing to see them uncut. The release of A Charlie Brown Christmas still has shortened opening and closing credits that once identified Coca-Cola as the original sponsor. (My memories of these shows are tied to the series' next longtime sponsor, Dolly Madison.) The three main shows all have 5.1 audio and most but not all include French and Spanish subtitles. My PlayStation 3 defaulted to hidden Japanese audio and subtitle options.
The older documentaries about each of the three main specials are entertaining and informative, if a little too "official" and generic. Mendelson and Meléndez (who died in 2008 at 91) are interviewed, along with Schulz's widow, animation historian Mark Evanier, and a couple of the child performers, now adults.
This is a nice set, perfect for annual holiday viewing, featuring good transfers and decent extra features. Highly Recommended.
* Pig-Pen's head completely vanishes for a couple of frames during "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.