Cartoonist Charles M. Schultz debuted his comic strip "Peanuts" in 1950, and by 1965 the strip had become so popular that it spawned the first of a long series of TV specials, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," followed in 1967 by the musical stage play "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." When Schultz died in 2000, a clause in his contract stipulated that the strip would end with his death, and his final original strip appeared on the day of his passing.
Today, we tend to take "Peanuts" for granted as an American institution, even though no new strips have appeared in almost a decade. We continue to get "Peanuts" TV and video specials (according to IMDb, there have been over fifty of them so far), and the characters are so instantly recognizable by practically everyone in America and the Western world, we find them in various commercials, like those for MetLife. It's a purely American phenomenon, I suppose, kept alive by the "Peanuts" television shows maintaining the same level of honest, simple purity that characterized Schultz's strips. It helped that Schultz himself wrote the scripts for most of the TV shows. What we get in this two-disc set are the first six "Peanuts" television specials ever made, and they are, indeed, special. THE classic "Peanuts" specials.
Despite what the back of the slipcover, the back of the DVD keep case, and the inside of the keep case say, disc one contains only the first three TV episodes of "Peanuts," not the first four. They are "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965), twenty-five minutes; "Charlie Brown's All-Stars" (1966), twenty-four minutes; and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown"(1966), twenty-five minutes. Bill Melendez directed all of the episodes, with Peter Robbins voicing Charlie Brown, director Melendez doing Snoopy, Sally Dryer as Lucy (except "A Charlie Brown Christmas," where the voice is Tracy Stratford and "It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown," voiced by Pamelyn Ferdin), Christopher Shea as Linus (except "It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown," voiced by Glenn Gilger), and Kathy Steinberg as Sally (except "It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown," voiced by Hilary Momberger).
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" finds an insecure, put-upon Charlie Brown unhappy that it's Christmastime again. He doesn't think anybody likes him, a dilemma complicated by his not having received any Christmas cards. Lucy tries to cheer him up by getting him involved in the annual Christmas play by asking him to direct it. Naturally, Charlie Brown assumes his responsibilities with his usual officiousness, and everybody thinks the play is going to be a complete failure.
The filmmakers, especially Melendez and Schultz, keep the story innocent and charismatic, which helps children appreciate it, yet in bringing in jazz artist Vince Guaraldi to do the music, they capture the attention of adults as well. The combination is irresistible, and the music from the episode went on to become a best-selling record album. Indeed, playing the CD of Guaraldi's music every Christmas has become a tradition in our family.
Lucy thinks the play needs a modern spirit of Christmas and sends Charlie Brown out for an aluminum Christmas tree, but our hero resists Lucy's practicality and instead buys a small real one. The result is poignant and provides an appealing lesson about the true meaning of Christmas. The episode got the "Peanuts" shows off to a very special start, and for me they never quite matched that auspicious beginning.
The second installment, "Charlie Brown's All-Stars," finds Charlie Brown as the coach, manager, and captain of a hopelessly bad baseball team. Forever the loser, Charlie Brown shows his ineptitude for the sport in the opening sequence. Moving back to catch a fly ball, he has to leave the field, run through yards and houses, finally positioning himself under the falling ball, only to have it in his glove and drop it.
Everyone on the team blames Charlie Brown for their never having won a game, and they don't want him ever to play with them. Needless to say, Charlie Brown has a good heart, and no matter how depressing things get for him, his innate optimism pulls him through. This one's about the power of friendship, and like "A Charlie Brown Christmas," it leaves one with a smile and maybe a tear.
The final episode on disc one is "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Here, we find Linus differing in his opinion with everybody else about the existence of the Great Pumpkin. Linus believes that the Great Pumpkin will come on Halloween night and bring him presents, so he sits in the pumpkin patch most of the night waiting for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. Interestingly, Charlie Brown takes a back seat to Linus in this episode, while Snoopy has an extended sequence as the famous World War I flying ace, forever battling the Red Baron. While "The Great Pumpkin" hasn't quite the enchantment or sentiment of the previous two shows, it tends to make up for any such shortcomings with its greater variety.
Disc two contains the other three episodes and several bonus items. The first episode here is "You're In Love, Charlie Brown" (1967), thirty minutes long. As usual, Charlie Brown is bemoaning his fate, in this case the fact that he thinks nobody likes him, and he doesn't have a girlfriend. He finds his misery amplified by his having fallen in love at school with a little red-headed girl who doesn't seem to notice him. But, alas, he can't bring himself to do anything about his crush, embarrassing himself with his shyness.
In this episode as much as any other, Charlie Brown makes us fully empathize with him; he is the Everyman (or Everyboy), encapsulating all of our own memories of childhood, our timidity, our fright, our lack of self-esteem and self-assurance.
For my part, I enjoyed the only adult words we hear, Charlie Brown's teacher saying "Blah, blah, blah, blah." And Charlie Brown's words, "There's nothing like unrequited love to drain all the flavor out of a peanut-butter sandwich."
Next up is "He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown" (1968), new to DVD, twenty-four minutes long. This one is devoted to Snoopy, who is driving all of the kids in the neighborhood crazy. They want Charlie Brown to do something about it, so Charlie Brown tries to send Snoopy back to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm for a refresher course in discipline. Snoopy doesn't quite get there, though, and Charlie Brown almost loses him before recognizing the inevitable rule of dogs and man: Namely, that a dog is Man's best friend. Best buddy, anyway.
The collection concludes with "It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown" (1969), also new to DVD, twenty-four minutes long. It's September and school is about to resume. The older you got, the shorter the summers, remember? The teacher assigns the kids to write a 500-word essay on what they did over their vacation, which gives the filmmakers an excuse to tell in flashback about Charlie Brown's experience at summer camp.
More important to me as a retired English teacher, it gives Charlie Brown the opportunity to exclaim, "Do you know why English teachers go to college for four years? So they can learn how to make stupid kids write stupid essays on what they did all stupid summer!"
All six of the "Peanuts" specials come in their original television broadcast ratios, 1.33:1, and Warner Bros. have remastered all the episodes in high bit-rate transfers. For the most part, they do look pretty good. The screens are fairly clean, with only a few age flecks noticeable, along with a bit of noise and grain. Colors are superb--bright, rich, and glistening--with deep black levels setting them off. Definition is good, too, although it comes at the expense of some minor edge enhancement and haloing.
Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack music is terrific, but the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural reproduction doesn't quite do it the justice it deserves. It was TV in the mid Sixties, after all, so don't expect state-of-the-art sonics. What you get is limited, constricted, and a little dull and soft. Nevertheless, it's pleasantly listenable, and I doubt that most "Peanuts" fans will object.
The primary bonus on the set is a new featurette, "Vince Guaraldi: The Maestro of Menlo Park," thirty-seven minutes long, hosted by Lee Mendelson, the executive producer of the "Peanuts" specials; it includes comments about the composer from many of his friends, relatives, and fellow jazz artists. In addition, the discs contain various previews at start-up and in the main menu; a trailer for the documentary "You Must Remember This," the Warner Bros. story; English, Japanese, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Japanese, Portuguese, and Thai subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. The two discs come in a normal-sized double keep case, further enclosed in an embossed cardboard slipcover.
As one might expect from any collection of short subjects, the contents vary somewhat in quality, and the viewer will find his own favorites among them. For me, the first episode is still the best, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Nevertheless, all six of the selections are charming, and it's hard not come away with a smile on your face. Let's just not forget the irreplaceable contributions of Vince Guaraldi, who may have been as valuable a part of the "Peanuts" specials as Schultz or his characters.