Although Charles M. Schulz had been dutifully churning out daily Peanuts strips for a full decade already, the 1960s proved to be the biggest period of growth for Charlie Brown and company. The decade's second half saw the release of the hugely popular A Charlie Brown Christmas, which led to five more television specials during the next four years. Several months later, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) hit theaters: as Peanuts' first foray into feature-length entertainment, it turned a tidy profit and was followed by three more full-length films and dozens of specials during the next few decades. It's probably not the best entry point for new fans---none of the hand-drawn movies are---but as a whole, offers a well-rounded summary of Peanuts' downbeat, low-fi mission statement.
From the opening scenes, it's painfully obvious that A Boy Named Charlie Brown isn't ready to jump head-first into anything more involved than a strip-sized gag; in fact, roughly 30 minutes go by before this 85-minute film starts to settle into a comfortable gear. Once it finally does, perpetual runner-up Charlie Brown (voiced by Peter Robbins for the final time) gets an unlikely shot at success after winning a school spelling bee. Thrilled at his brush with attention and respect, ol' Chuck studies hard and climbs up the ranks...eventually earning a spot in New York City's National Spelling Bee, so he's in unfamiliar territory several times over. Some measure of comfort is achieved as Snoopy and Linus pay a visit; the former is suffering from blanket withdrawal after giving it to Charlie for good luck, while the latter is his usual independent and free-wheeling self. Eventually, they're just two more audience members staring a hole through our lovable underdog as he attempts to redeem himself on national television.
He doesn't, obviously, which makes A Boy Named Charlie Brown a clear reminder that its protagonist is basically doomed for life. There were exceptions to the rule, of course: even A Charlie Brown Christmas ended on a glimmer of hope and other movies and specials followed suit...but this wasn't one of them. Despite the franchise's continually abusive treatment of its most recognizable face, the Peanuts franchise maintained its popularity for decades and still remains a pop culture heavyweight...even though the happy endings are few and far between.
Armed with a half-dozen or so song breaks (many with lyrics, a first for the franchise) and a terrific score by series regular Vince Guaraldi, A Boy Named Charlie Brown never quite achieves a big-screen atmosphere. It's essentially a beefed-up TV special; one with a half-decent story that, like it or not, is padded extensively with a generous handful of shorter skits (some copied almost verbatim from existing strips). I prefer the broader scope of the Peanuts films to come---Bon Voyage is probably my favorite, for the record---but I wouldn't blame anyone for preferring this one for its place in history. Even with the occasionally baffling detours and dead-ends that prevent it from running more smoothly, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is still enjoyable Peanuts fare that even casual fans should enjoy. Paramount's long-awaited Blu-ray follows their own previous DVD releases, offering an improved 1080p transfer and open-matte aspect ratio...along with a baffling release strategy and no extras (this would've been nice).
Video & Audio Quality
Unlike the previous DVD releases, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is presented in open-matte 1.33:1 on this new 1080p transfer, with the resulting picture looking considerably different than its 480p counterpart. I much prefer this framing; there's a lot more headroom (even if some of it is just dead space, as it was no doubt created for "safe" theatrical matting), giving scenes like the opening cloud-watch a much more open and natural feeling. Of course, the lack of zooming in this open-matte presentation obviously increases overall image detail, no doubt amplified by the increased resolution of Blu-ray and better encoding. This doesn't appear to be a new master; in direct comparison to the DVD, a few of the same (minor) blemishes can be spotted along the way and the film's "messier" appearance---at least in comparison to most other Peanuts productions---has not been smoothed over. But it still looks quite good on Blu-ray, so fans will be happy to have both a stronger presentation and dramatically different framing.
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Not surprisingly, the difference in audio isn't nearly as dramatic. The default Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has been given a cursory bump to DTS-HD Master Audio, while the more scaled-back Dolby 2.0 track remains the same (albeit at a slightly higher bitrate, it seems). Both options yield relatively flat and front-loaded results by design: Peanuts has always been a relatively lo-fi franchise in the audio department. Although some of the music by Vince Guaraldi, John Scott Trotter, and Rod McKuen sounds wider on the surround track, you can expect the same general atmosphere on both options. Dialogue is clear with minimal defects, although the high end can't help but sound a little thin and distorted at times. Unlike the DVD, optional English subtitles are included---definitely a plus.
Menu Design & Packaging
The new comic-styled menus load quickly and are easy to navigate, with minimal options and a uniform appearance. This one-disc release is packaged in a red keepcase with clean, Schulz-drawn artwork and a matching slipcover; as a whole, it's virtually identical to the re-issued Paramount DVDs that fans should be familiar with.
A Boy Named Charlie Brown isn't exactly near the top of the Peanuts heap; as the first feature-length film in the franchise's history, it obviously has trouble filling its modest 85-minute running time and takes an awfully long time to get going. It's an obvious case of growing pains that, during the next three films, would never be fully resolved, eventually sending the Peanuts gang back to television for 35 years. But there's still a lot to like for enthusiasts of "the ol' blockhead": Charlie Brown's fruitless quest into the dark underbelly of competitive spelling, Linus' harrowing struggle to quit his addiction cold turkey, and...um, Snoopy playing a mean mouth harp. Paramount's long-overdue Blu-ray package is more than a little frustrating, however: the much-improved visuals and aspect ratio are certainly welcome, but this barebones disc feels like a cheap cash grab that will obviously lead to an inevitable four-pack like the existing DVDs. Recommended for die-hard Peanuts fans; others should rent it.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.