In his half-century run as the writer-artist of the quintessential comic strip Peanuts, Charles M. Schultz reliably served slices of childhood psychology seasoned with surreality. In 1965, Schultz expanded his presence by teaming with producer-director Bill Melendez on the smash-hit animated TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Within four years, the Peanuts gang starred in their big-screen debut, written by Schultz and directed by Melendez: A Boy Named Charlie Brown.
Melendez proved a good match for Schultz. The animation accurately represents Schultz's comic-strip expressions, with occasional flights of fancy (a visual highlight of A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a Fantasia-esque reverie to accompany Schroder playing the third movement of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13: "Pathetique"). The choice to cast inexperienced child actors gave the animated projects added charm, as did the jazz stylings of Vince Guaraldi (as arranged by John Scott Trotter, the A Boy Named Charlie Brown score secured an Oscar nomination).
The plot of the first Peanuts feature meanders endearingly through a number of the strip's touchstones: Charlie Brown attempting to fly a kite (watch out for that Kite-Eating Tree!), the gang's woeful baseball team, and the unrequited affections of little girls (Lucy and Sally) for little boys (Schroeder and Linus). Snoopy even has one of his customary bad dreams, in which he "dogfights" the Red Baron. Primarily, however, A Boy Named Charlie Brown concerns itself with the existential crisis of its hero.
The appeal of Schultz's pop philosophy hasn't faded in forty years: this kind of sincerity can't be faked. Take the scene in which blanket-hugging thinker Linus van Pelt counsels Charlie Brown. Linus: "We learn more from losing than we do from winning." Charlie: "I guess that makes me the smartest person in the whole world." Linus: "I think you just talked yourself into being a loser, Charlie Brown."
A fretting Charlie consults Linus' sister Lucy ("Psychiatric Help 5¢"), but her stinkin' thinkin' runs to a slide show of his faults and a slow-mo instant reply of his football wipeout. Taking Linus' supportive advice instead, Charlie Brown resolves to adopt a can-do attitude. Our hero finds success competing in school spelling bees, but is it too good to last?
The near-tuneless song "I Before E Except After C" seems to be a Schoolhouse Rock prototype. Infamous lyricist Rod McKuen wrote the words and music for this and a handful of unfortunately lame tunes ("Failure Face," "Champion Charlie Brown," and the title song). Putting aside McKuen's efforts, A Boy Named Charlie Brown has evergreen appeal for kids and cannot help but make adults smile. Charlie Brown may claim he "just can't do anything right," but ultimately his hope is undying, a sensible encouragement to his young fans.
No extras on the first DVD release of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, but a bit of dirt aside, the colorful image lacks distracting artifacts (by modern standards, the soundtrack can be harsh around the edges, but it's quite serviceable). Happily, Paramount has seen fit to release the original 86-minute theatrical version of the film (previous home-video releases have been a 79-minute cut). The studio faces a minor controversy over the original aspect ratio. Facing a no-win situation from internet wags, Paramount chose the lesser of two evils and presented the film as it was originally seen in theatres: in widescreen. True, the film was created in an Academy ratio, but it was projected to matted widescreen ratios. Furthermore, since home video is going the way of widescreen, the decision is certainly justifiable and, for many, preferable. The framing seems quite natural (if anything, the horizontal framing seemed a wee tight during "I Before E Except After C"). Given the nice price, Peanuts fans should jump at this well-presented DVD.
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