It wasn't long ago that Warner Bros. released the three "Peanuts" films in this set separately on Blu-ray at about $25 each, so getting all three of them for a retail price of about $43 is a bargain, to say the least. Unless, of course, you've already bought them on Blu-ray, in which case you may be kicking yourself. Whatever, this "Deluxe Holiday Collection" contains what may be the three best "Peanuts/Charlie Brown" television specials of all: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965), "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" (1966), and "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" (1973).
A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS
Cartoonist Charles M. Schultz debuted his "Peanuts" comic strip 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.
"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, kept the story innocent and charismatic, which helps children appreciate it, yet in bringing in jazz artist Vince Guaraldi to do the music, they captured 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 album 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 the rest of them never quite matched this auspicious beginning.
IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN
What we get on this second Blu-ray disc are two television specials: the 1966 TV special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown," and a bonus feature, "It's Magic, Charlie Brown." In "It's the Great Pumpkin," 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, while his friends tell him the Great Pumpkin is a fake.
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. As usual, Snoopy steals the show. While "The Great Pumpkin" hasn't quite the enchantment or sentiment of the very first "Peanuts" special, it tends to make up for any such shortcomings with its greater variety. And it's got that sweet message of sticking to your beliefs.
Bill Melendez directed "It's the Great Pumpkin," with Peter Robbins voicing Charlie Brown, director Melendez doing Snoopy, Sally Dryer as Lucy, Christopher Shea as Linus, and Cathy Steinberg as Sally.
A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING
"A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" first appeared on television in 1973, and it was an honest attempt to duplicate the success the "Peanuts" team had with the earlier specials "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." If it's not quite in their league, well, it wasn't because writer Charles Schultz or directors Bill Melendez and Phil Roman weren't trying.
The show begins with poor-soul Charlie Brown (voiced by Todd Barbee) again getting tricked by spiteful Lucy (Robin Kohn), her pulling away a football she insists Charlie Brown kick to open the annual Thanksgiving Day football game, with Charlie Brown missing it and falling on his rear. He falls for it every time. Then Sally calls him, inviting herself and two friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, Charlie Brown is going to his grandmother's house for dinner, but he can't say no to anyone. So he's stuck until he decides to have two Thanksgiving dinners, one early for his friends and the other at his grandmother's.
The next problem: All Charlie Brown knows how to fix for food is toast and cereal. He decides to go with toast and enlists Snoopy and Woodstock to help him prepare it. Snoopy fixes not only a ton of toast but jellybeans, pretzels, and popcorn, too. Naturally, Patty gets ticked because it's not a proper Thanksgiving dinner.
OK, that's all pretty much expected from a "Peanuts" cartoon. What we also get we also expect: a sweet ending and a timely message. And Patty's constantly chasing after Charlie Brown. I was never a big "Peanuts" fan, not of the comic strip or the television specials, but I admit they can be touching and they go down easily enough.
For all three films, Warner Bros. video engineers use a single-layer BD25 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the films in their television broadcast ratios of 1.37:1. For the most part, they look pretty good in Blu-ray high definition, although, as I've said, the animation is rather plain in each case and doesn't benefit as much from high-def as a more-nuanced live-action movie might. The images are reasonably clean, with only a little grit and a few age flecks noticeable, along with a bit of noise and grain. Colors are superb--bright, rich, and glistening. Object delineation is good, too, although it comes at the expense of some minor haloing, especially in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (although, to be fair, there is often a thin, intentional shadowing present, too).
Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack music is terrific, of course, and the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on the two later films does the music a little more justice than the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction does for "A Charlie Brown Christmas." I don't know why Warners decided against a lossless track for this earliest film; maybe they figured since the soundtrack came from the mid Sixties and wasn't state-of-the-art (originally broadcast in monaural), it didn't matter. Anyway, what we get in most cases is warm and smooth but rather limited, with a fairly narrow front-channel spread and very little surround. Nevertheless, the sound is pleasantly listenable, and I doubt that most "Peanuts" fans will object.
The main bonus items on "A Charlie Brown Christmas" include a second full-length (twenty-five minute) feature, "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown," and a sixteen-minute featurette, "The Making of A Charlie Brown Christmas." The second cartoon is a special from 1992, wherein we find Charlie Brown trying raise money to buy a Christmas gift by selling wreathes and even his comic-book collection, Peppermint Patty fretting over a book report, and Lucy and Sally grumping about everything. The story line is more scattered and disjointed than the main feature, but it's got a sweet message. The making-of featurette comes to us from 2008 and includes producer Lee Mendelson and director/animator Bill Melendez discussing the history of the original production.
The bonuses on "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" begin with the second feature film I mentioned earlier, "It's Magic, Charlie Brown," from 1981. The unusual thing about this special is that Bill Melendez didn't direct it, Phil Roman did, which is OK because his association with the TV specials went all the way back to 1973, and he directed a number of them. Although Bill Melendez still voices Snoopy, we get Michael Mandy as Charlie Brown, Brent Hauer as Peppermint Patty, Cindi Reilly as Sally, Sydney Penny as Lucy, and Rocky Reilly as Linus. In this one, Snoopy checks out a book on magic from the library and practices a few magic tricks on Woodstock. Encouraged, Snoopy decides to entertain all the children, "with a stage and everything." The first half of the show has Snoopy performing magic tricks for the kids. Finally, Charlie Brown gets his chance as a volunteer from the audience, where Snoopy promptly makes him disappear. The trouble is, Snoopy can't make him reappear. So, poor soul Charlie Brown has to go for a while completely invisible. Since Charlie has always been practically invisible to most of the people around him, anyway, it makes little matter. Except to him.
In addition, "It's the Great Pumpkin" disc includes the featurette "We Need a Blockbuster, Charlie Brown," on the history and making of "It's the Great Pumpkin." The featurette is about fourteen minutes long, produced in 2008, and includes the reminiscences of many of the filmmakers who were around at the time.
The primary bonus on "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" is also a second feature film, "The Mayflower Voyagers." This one is problematic because it tries to do a lot more than most previous "Peanuts" cartoons. It attempts to be a twenty-five-minute history lesson on the coming of the Pilgrims to America, with the "Peanuts" gang aboard. Not that history can't be interesting, but unlike most of the "Peanuts" shows, which can be entertaining for adults as well as children, this one seems more obviously aimed directly at kids.
"Mayflower Voyagers" begins in 1620 as 102 men, women, and children (and one dog and a bird) depart from Plymouth, England, for the East Coast of America. Charlie Brown and the gang are among the children involved. Sixty-five days later they arrive in America and after about a month or two of exploration they found a new Plymouth in today's Massachusetts. The story covers the hardships and eventual good fortune of the Pilgrims and their fortuitous interaction with the country's Native Americans, culminating in the first Thanksgiving dinner. I wish I could say it was more fun, but there's just no way even the "Peanuts" gang can change history or spice it up, nor is there any way the producers can portray the real adversities endured by the actual settlers in a children's cartoon. Beyond "Voyagers," we also get a twelve-minute featurette, "Popcorn & Jellybeans: Making a Thanksgiving Classic," in which the cast and filmmakers of "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving" tell us about their experiences creating the film.
Finally, all the movies include bonus DVD's, which have the same extras on them as the BD's; some promos at start-up and in the main menu; English as the only spoken language; French subtitles on "Thanksgiving" and French and Spanish subtitles on "Pumpkin"; and English captions for the hearing impaired on all three Blu-rays. The discs come in separate, full-sized BD keep cases, the cases further enclosed in a decorated and embossed cardboard slipcover-type box.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is unquestionably the best of the three films in the set, a genuine Christmas classic. It may not have the pizzazz of a modern CGI creation, but it is charming, and it's hard not come away with a smile on your face. The other two films have their moments of delight as well, so it's a good deal all the way around. What's more, we cannot forget the irreplaceable contributions of Vince Guaraldi, who was as valuable a part of the "Peanuts" television specials as Schultz or his characters were. Whichever show you like best, it's nice to have all three of them in one Blu-ray set at a reasonable price.
Addendum: Warners are also making the three "Peanuts" holiday specials available in an "Ultimate Collector's Edition" Blu-ray/DVD pack, which includes the three Blu-ray discs reviewed above and their DVD equivalents, all six discs contained in a single Blu-ray keep case, further enclosed in a slipcover. What's more, the "Ultimate Edition" includes a Peanuts snow globe (not a globe, actually, but a flat, round Lucite lenticular) and three Peanuts holiday window clings. The cost for this set is greater, of course, about $69 retail, but if you want the other goodies, you pay for them.