Friday, June 6, 2014
What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?
STORY: Just as in my last Peanuts review, Charlie Brown and Sally Brown are hanging out at home. Chuck is diligently filling up a scrapbook with pictures of lovely French regional architecture, taken during his time as an exchange student. (That's right; What Have We Learned is considered a sequel, of sorts, to the fourth Peanuts feature film, 1980's Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown.) Sally is wondering exactly how her brother, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Snoopy and Woodstock made their way back to the United States.
Flashback to France, and the open-ended conclusion of Bon Voyage. A beret-clad Snoopy is struggling behind the wheel of a Citroen 2CV. In the midst of some ad hoc auto repairs, Snoopy kicks the car into several dozen pieces. Silence reigns, until Peppermint Patty suggests they all grab some grub. (I like the way that girl thinks; always have.)
After filling their stomachs with some rich lunch, Snoopy reassembles the Citroen and drives it to a nearby car rental lot. Seeing as their old ride now resembles a scrap metal sculpture, a replacement is vital. The female proprietor is an older French woman who is clearly besotted at the sight of Snoopy decked out in full Flying Ace attire. The group resume their journey, planning to grab a ferry to London, where they will grab a flight back home. Night falls, and they pull over, setting blankets out on a nearby beach. Linus can't shake his restlessness, however, and abandons the gang to take a stroll along the shore. After several moments gazing at the environs, he excitedly returns to his friends, waking them up to inform them that they are at Omaha Beach, largest of the five beaches that were invaded by Allied forces during World War II, on what would historically come to be known as "D-Day." "This is where it all started!" he exclaims, taking them down to the shore so they can learn some more more more more.
Linus tells a condensed version of the events of June 6, 1944, as (filtered) archival news footage of the combat appears on screen, with the Peanuts kids placed amid the action via rotoscoping. When day breaks, they visit the 172-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the final resting place of 9,387 fallen American soldiers. Audio of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower plays on the soundtrack as the children gaze at the rows of white crosses and the garden walls upon which another 1,557 troops whose bodies could not be located or identified have their names inscribed.
Eventually they return to the car to begin the journey anew. The solemnity of the last several minutes is momentarily broken up with the appearance of what can only be described as "French Woodstocks." A stop for breakfast can't deter Linus, who would much rather bury his face in a book about the War then a plate of piping-hot croissants.
The wisdom of letting the dog drive is once again challenged when he gets lost. A local boy tells the group they are on the road to Ypres, Belgium--a city that Linus recognizes as the site of one of World War I's most memorable struggles: the Second Battle of Ypres, fought over April and May of 1915. The Germans used poison gas on the Western front for the first time in this battle, forcing the British and French forces to immediately develop their own chemical weapons and proper field protection. Over 100,000 casualties were claimed, one of which inspired Canadian Lt. Col. John McRae to pen the poem "In Flanders Fields," a touching if mildly anachronistic piece that Linus recites amid a preponderance of red poppies. Once finished, he walks over to his speechless friend and asks simply, "What have we learned, Charlie Brown?"
With that question still ringing in our ears, the action returns to the Brown abode, where Sally calmly points out to her brother that he's pasting the pictures into the scrapbook upside down.
So you see, these 25 minutes of Peanuts are nothing like the last 25 I reviewed.
Charles Schulz was inspired to create this animated tribute while recovering from open-heart surgery. A former Staff Sgt. in the Army, Schulz spoke sparingly but proudly of his service. What Have We Learned is the greatest tribute the man could have possibly offered. 10
MUSIC: Judy Munsen and Dawn Atkinson provie a soundtrack is downright reverent, wisely utilizing minimal reeds and strings. 9
ANIMATION: This is movie-quality animation, and from the city to the countryside, cartoon France looks marvelous. Linus' visual revelation on Omaha Beach is tasteful, stirring and gorgeous. Not a single second of the real and cartoon worlds meshing comes off as hokey or crass. 10
VOICES: Everyone gives low-key performances. Brad Kesten and Stacy Heather Tollin voice the Browns and each earn 8's. Brent Hauer gets a 7.5 for Peppermint Patty, for lack of use. Michael Dockery is busier a bit as Marcie, and a sugary bilingual treat besides (9). Jeremy Schoenberg carries the weightiest load as Linus the impromptu tour guide through some of the most harrowing periods in world history, and he acquits himself well (10).
THE TORCH, BE YOURS TO HOLD HIGH
--I heart you, vexed Snoopy. You make my ventricles glow.
--Check out how handy he is, I mean sure he gets angry quicker than the Incredible Hulk hearing a joke explained, but he's just so damned cute and versatile, his style switches like a--
You killed him! You beagle-electrocuting stink-frogs! The rancid spirit of De Gaulle haunts you all to this day! France, you listen to me, and you listen to me good…
Oh. He's fine, guys! Holy crap, do I crave crepes and croissants like crazy suddenly.
--Are Citroen's really that rickety-rackety? I get the vibe if you suddenly smashed down on the brakes while driving one, your feet would go through the floorboard.
--Speaking of smashed feet...
I know, Marcie. I know.
WE ARE THE DEAD/SHORT DAYS AGO WE LIVED
While What Have We Learned understandably does not feature the more gruesome realities of war, the show remains riveting. The best testimony I can give is that it drove me to read up more on D-Day and Ypres, to explore beyond the gripping visuals beloved by Hollywood and the tidy tales told for the satisfaction of simplistic minds. (The invasion at Omaha Beach, for example, was actually a military disaster that somehow turned into a bittersweet triumph.)
One of the most magnanimous achievements in animation, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? somehow missed out on an Emmy Award, but did earn a prestigious Peabody Award. A quote from Charles Schulz about the special was included in the 1999 book Peanuts: A Golden Celebration makes it clear how proud the creative team was with not only the end result, but the reaction to it as well: "The Peabody award we received for What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? was a very gratifying response to the program, plus many wonderful letters from appreciative young viewers who said that they now understood what happened on June 6, 1944. We labeled this show with the subtitle A Tribute, because that was exactly what we wanted it to be: no more and no less. It proved also that the characters of Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the others were close enough to being real to handle delicately a subject that other animated characters would destroy."
He was 100% right; Jim Davis wouldn't have dreamed of animating Garfield at Iwo Jima, you know.