We've all got our holiday traditions. Some folks have egg hunts on Easter, some split a wishbone on Turkey Day and others travel up to Punxsatawney on February 2nd. In turn, film lovers and couch potatoes often curl up in front a warm screen to watch holiday-themed movies and TV shows every year, from Ernest Scared Stupid to It's a Wonderful Life (how's that for diversity?). The Peanuts animated specials are perennial favorites around these parts, especially between October and December; barely a season goes by when Charlie Brown and company aren't visited more than once. Paramount originally released "The Big Three" (It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas) as a boxed set and stand-alone releases; eight years later, they've been upgraded by Warner Bros., who acquired the rights to the Peanuts library last October. Today's review covers what most Peanuts fans will be looking for: all three in one convenient re-package. Before we get to the technical side of things, let's take a look at each one.
As the third Peanuts animated adventure unleashed on the general public (right behind the Christmas special and Charlie Brown's All Stars), It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (at top, and reviewed separately here) was a confirmation of the series' enduring success...and since most of us have grown up watching the adventures of Charlie Brown and company during the last few decades, it's obvious that Peanuts stayed successful for quite some time. This entertaining tale of tricks, treats, rocks and The Red Baron has been a Halloween staple since it first aired on October 27, 1966, initially scoring a 49% ratings share for CBS. Needless to say, people of all ages loved it. From start to finish, The Great Pumpkin exhibits all the strengths that gave the Peanuts specials such undeniable staying power: refreshingly simple animation, bold colors, a timeless score by Vince Guaraldi...and of course, Charlie Brown's unyielding pathos.
You'd have to search far and wide to find someone unfamiliar with The Great Pumpkin, but here's a quick recap anyway. Halloween night is fast approaching, and everyone's getting their costumes ready for Trick or Treat...except for Linus, who shuns the sugar-fueled tradition for one of his own. He's faithfully expecting The Great Pumpkin, a magical being who brings presents to children waiting in the most sincere pumpkin patch. The other kids make fun of him for believing such nonsense, though Charlie Brown's sister Sally ends up skipping candy collection (and Violet's party!) to be with him. While all this is unfolding, Snoopy---in what might be the most surreal subplot in Halloween history---is shot down by The Red Baron and crosses the French countryside in search of shelter.
Mysterious, poignant and completely entertaining, The Great Pumpkin has held up extremely well during the last 42 years. Charles Schulz's original story is touching and funny without feeling forced at all, composer Vince Guaraldi's pitch-perfect score is as memorable as ever (and only bested slightly by A Charlie Brown Christmas), the young voice actors are terrific and director Bill Melendez keeps the Peanuts formula in shape from start to finish. All things considered, this little 25-minute slice of animated magic remains as compelling as ever---and without a doubt, The Great Pumpkin will entertain future generations, whether it's viewed on Halloween night or a humid summer afternoon. Film Rating for The Great Pumpkin: 4.5/5.
It's probably the least memorable of the three, but A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (above) is still a decent enough Turkey Day adventure. Originally broadcast on November 20, 1973, this outing centers around an impromptu dinner suggested by Peppermint Patty, who invites herself (and a few friends) over to Charlie Brown's house. Chuck and Sally are due at Grandma's later in the afternoon for a family celebration, so the last-minute spread consists of jellybeans, toast, pretzels and popcorn (prepped by Snoopy, who also brawls with lawn furniture); needless to say, Patty's none too pleased about the lack of turkey and mashed potatoes. Luckily, all is not lost: Grandma saves the day by inviting the gang over for dinner, ruining the canine's culinary efforts in a matter of minutes. In a shocking turn of events, Snoopy gets even by whipping a turkey out of his doghouse and feasting with a cannibalistic Woodstock.
Though it's closer in tone to the Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving isn't quite near the top of Charles Schulz' back catalog. Of course, the deck is stacked against it from the start: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was the first of the Peanuts animated specials that wasn't based on a storyline from Schulz' comic strip. It also goes without saying that Turkey Day has never been the go-to holiday for memorable stories---unless you're a Friends fan, of course---though most of us are too busy eating or sleeping to care either way. Still, plenty of familiar Peanuts touches are on display from start to finish, including terrific animation, solid voice acting and a suitable score. The sole weak point is the story itself, which proves to be rather straightforward and preachy (yes, even by Peanuts standards). Even though it's not as memorable as The Great Pumpkin and A Charlie Brown Christmas, this one's still hard to resist after the parade, poultry and pumpkin pie. Film Rating for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: 4/5.
"Lights, please." A Charlie Brown Christmas (below) is the one that got the snowball rolling, so it's no surprise that the 60-odd Peanuts specials that followed it owe their existence to this touching, poignant masterpiece. The entire production was completed on a shoestring budget in roughly six months---and it was all kicked off by a phone call from Coca-Cola, who was looking to sponsor a Christmas special based on Schulz' popular strip. Animator Bill Melendez (hand-picked by Schulz, based on his past work with the creator on a number of television commercials) worked closely with Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson to develop the story and iron out the visuals. They also made the "unusual" decision to use children as voice actors; some of the kids even had to be fed their lines every half-sentence, which led to the somewhat choppy nature of the audio. The animation was also a bit crude at times, due to a rushed production and limited budget---but to the surprise of the creators and TV executives, the end result (originally broadcast on December 9, 1965) was a critical and commercial smash. A Charlie Brown Christmas ranked in a 49% ratings share and is regarded as one of the most popular and enduring films in television history.
A number of key factors make A Charlie Brown Christmas stand out from the crowd of holiday programming, especially today. The film's strict anti-commercialism message (dimmed somewhat due to Coca-Cola's initial sponsorship) is the easiest one to spot, as our wishy-washy hero shuffles around in a neon-holiday funk. Linus' reading of a passage from the King James version of The Bible was originally frowned upon by network executives (Schulz' argument was that "If we don't tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?"), but now remains one of the film's most famous and touching segments. Finally, the poignant soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi---featuring the debut of Peanuts' unofficial theme music ("Linus and Lucy"), the stirring "Christmastime is Here" and a few jazzy renditions of traditional holiday songs---sets the tone perfectly, rounding out this 25-minute miracle with a perfect balance of sadness and spirit. It may be one that we've all seen countless times, but A Charlie Brown Christmas has retained every ounce of charm during the past 43 years---and without a doubt, it'll still be relevant decades from now. Film Rating for A Charlie Brown Christmas: 5/5.
As most Peanuts fans are already aware of, Paramount released "The Big Three" as stand-alone releases and as part of a holiday boxed set back in 2000. Though newer 25-minute bonus specials were included with each one, traditional extras were nowhere to be found---and to make matters worse, the technical presentations were a bit on the weak side. After Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the Peanuts library last October, fans knew that complete overhauls of these specials would be announced soon enough. Featuring remastered technical presentations, new featurettes and (in some cases) different bonus specials, these "Deluxe Editions" serve as suitable upgrades for Peanuts fans the world over. Today's review covers the Deluxe boxed set of the above holiday favorites, though fans can buy them separately if desired. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, these three specials look greatly improved in direct comparison to Paramount's 2000 releases [samples linked below]. The color palettes are more natural and vivid (if not slightly on the pink side, especially during The Great Pumpkin), while foreground and background details are much crisper than before. Black levels are also very consistent during numerous nighttime sequences. Oddly enough, the newest of the bunch (A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving) is probably the least impressive visually, though it still shows a notable improvement over the 2000 release. Luckily for us, interlacing is no longer an issue [see this Great Pumpkin pic for proof], which was undoubtedly the Paramount releases' biggest problem. From top to bottom, Warner's remastered visual presentation is fantastic---and if this is any hint of future Peanuts releases, fans are in for a real treat. To make a long story short, these pictures should speak for themselves.
It's The Great Pumpkin: "Sally Reconsiders" | "Dog Lips" | "A Wasted Night"
Though not quite as noticeable as the visual improvements, these Deluxe Editions' audio treatment is satisfying in its own right. Presented in the original Dolby Digital Mono (also available in Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese), dialogue and music cues are generally crisp and clear. Very slight amounts of hiss and crackling can be heard along the way, but this is undoubtedly due to the source material (especially during A Charlie Brown Christmas, for reasons mentioned above). Optional English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Thai subtitles are included during the main features and bonus specials only.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, like the Paramount release, is paired with The Mayflower Voyagers (below right, and originally presented as part of This Is America, Charlie Brown, a 1988-89 Peanuts "mini-series"). Following the crew and passengers of The Mayflower, we witness the early Pilgrims' journey, the writing of The Mayflower Compact, early hardships and the eventual harvest. Like nearly all others in the series, this episode creatively plugs in members from the Peanuts gang as various characters in the story. It's not half-bad on its own terms, though it can't help but stick out a little when presented apart from This Is America, Charlie Brown. Like the other bonus shorts in this collection, the technical presentation isn't as polished as the main feature, but it still gets the job done.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is paired with the first direct-to-video Peanuts special, It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown (1992), though it was occasionally broadcast on CBS after its release. The theme of a Christmas play with the gang is revisited; meanwhile, Charlie Brown tries to earn money to buy a gift for Peggy Jean (who makes her first and only animated appearance here). It's a decent enough effort, especially since this also marks the first use of Vince Guaraldi's music in a Peanuts cartoon since his death in 1976. It's Christmastime Again can't help but pale in comparison to the original, but nostalgia could be the culprit.
Switching gears a bit, three Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes (seen below, and roughly 12-15 minutes apiece) are also included here, respectively titled "We Need a Blockbuster!", "Popcorn and Jellybeans" and "A Christmas Miracle". Collectively, these short but sweet sessions feature comments from director/animator Bill Melendez, producer Lee Mendelson, former CBS programming executive Fred Silverman, Peanuts historian Scott McGuire, Schulz' wife Jean and son Monte, a few of the original child actors and several others. These serve as terrific little trips into the past, back when Peanuts specials pulled in monster ratings and only three networks competed for the public's attention. Melendez is particularly humble but enthusiastic, clearly grateful to be a part of such memorable and enduring productions. Vintage photos, comic panels and original sketches are also shown along the way. These featurettes are entertaining and definitely worth a look, especially for animation lovers and Schulz fans in general.
As an added bonus, a few music-related extras are also on board. Each disc insert highlights a promo code to download a pair of songs from the respective soundtrack, while A Charlie Brown Christmas includes a six-track Bonus CD Sampler of music from the film. It's unknown whether the stand-alone release will include a bonus disc, though I'd imagine such an extra would be clearly marked on the packaging (a sticker was included on the boxed set).
All extras are presented in 1.33:1 format, but only the bonus shorts include optional subtitles and captions. This proves to be mildly disappointing: when a studio bothers with 7 sets of subtitles during most of the content, why not go the whole way?
October, November and December are almost upon us; luckily, Charlie Brown and company have all the bases covered. This trio of perennial favorites is classic Peanuts from start to finish, featuring colorful animation, strong music and a timeless spirit. The Great Pumpkin, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and A Charlie Brown Christmas are bound to be aired on television countless times, but these versions are cleaner, more colorful and commercial-free. Since most Peanuts fans are bound to want all three in one fell swoop, Warner Bros.' boxed set is a no-brainer: boasting strong technical presentations, several entertaining new featurettes and three bonus specials, there's plenty of replay value for the asking price. Christmas may be a few months off, but there's no reason why this collection shouldn't be on your shelf already. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.