Thursday, February 12, 2009

This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Great Inventors

AIRDATE: 3/10/89

(My apologies that this came a day later than promised. The rest of the reviews are in various stages of completion and will meet their deadlines. Swear to Snoopy.)

Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson did not hone his bones with neurotic children. When he approached Charles Schulz to do a mini-documentary on his great creation, Mendelson had already crafted San Francisco Pageant (a Peabody-winning retrospective on the San Francisco World's Fair) as well as A Man Named Mays, dedicated to one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Having just done a piece on a legendary sportsman, Mendelson saw the next step in the trajectory as a look at the worst sportsman (or sportsboy) in all the wild--Charlie Brown.

After 20+ years of holiday-themed specials, the Peanuts team decided to produce an educational film on American history. After discovering that their collective reach exceeded their grasp, the first-ever animated miniseries was born: This is America, Charlie Brown, an eight-part look at some of the key moments that shaped the grand land.

STORY: The Great Inventors concentrates on some of the more significant inventions thought up by American minds: the light bulb, the phonograph, the phone, and the car. This is America was meant to be "edutainment", meaning that you learn but you don't get bored in the process. At least that's the ideal outcome. We also must not let it slip our mind grapes that Boogie Down Productions had an album called Edutainment. So, does this special shine as it teaches, much like the song "Blackman in Effect", or does it confuse, bore and annoy, much like R.E.M.'s "Radio Song"?

The concept is novel: the Peanuts boys and girls are giving oral reports at school on famous inventions, then the action segues to the relevant time period, where the child is then inevitably doing a report for school on a wholly personable and accommodating genius (seriously, Edison would have snapped some nosy kids left arm clean the fuck off if they'd brought that, "Gee, Mr. Edison, I'm writing for school about you, can I watch you work?" crap). In simple language, the animated versions of these great men explain the thought process as to why their invention is necessary and the progress they've made. The viewer is then treated to the voila! moment of consummation.

It's all very educational and not dull. But it's a tad disappointing as well. I expect untrammelled brilliance from anything that bears the name Schulz. Maybe the fact that the resplendent man himself did not write any of the scripts in this miniseries--those duties went to Mendelson and Bill Melendez--affected the overall quality, making for a very watchable, non-heinous group of specials. But Peanuts shows are, at their zenith, more than "very watchable". They're side-splitting and excogitative. Repeated viewings are cause to revisit delightful lines and moments that stay in you like DNA, as well as opportunities to uncover new joys that you may have missed before.

I had only watched The Great Inventors once on DVD before last night, when I stuck the disc back in the playa for review purposes. Meanwhile, I'll watch A Charlie Brown Christmas seven or eight times this year. 7.5

ANIMATION: Not precisely cracker-crisp, but nor is it wafer-thin. Impressive variety of colors, and honest renderings of period homes, clothing, and furniture. Only a 9, though, because Snoopy's mouth is doing some weird shit.

MUSIC: David Benoit is to Vince Guaraldi as Tom Tom Club was to Talking Heads. No dis at all, 'cause Tom Tom Club made "Genius of Love", which most of us agree is so fuckin' funky it makes Bootsy Collins seem like Pat Boone (glory b!). Benoit has the expected jazzy piano and horn-blasted patriotic huzzahs as his Get out of Jail Free card, a constant sonic undercurrent that keeps tedium at bay. 8

VOICES: Kids-only edition. Given deliberately unspectacular lines, the gathering deliver uniformly appropriate performances. Starting it off, Brittany Thornton's Sally is a jerky-while-trying-to-be-authoritative 9. Erin Chase earns 7.5 as Blockhead, while his best pal Linus (brought to you by Brandon Stewart), is a genuinely childish 8 (many times the producers skewer towards the mature-sounding kids for an underage sage such as Linus). Marie Wise is a nice 9 as Marcie, although you can tell if she were given a larger role, the show would have lost serious momentum. Her voice simply doesn't have that flavor. Marcie's sassy sidekick, voiced by probable producer progeny Jason Mendelson, is a typical 10, pulling off the line of the night: "Hey, that's neat!"


Sally's report, fittingly, deals with more "frivolous" inventions: pizza pie, sneakers, sports, comic strips. All the better for Snoopy to do his show and tell, which naturally provides the show with its moments of highest comedy.

Her unwilling love interest, Linus, naturally traffics in loftier stuff: the phone, trains, typewriters. And his class gets a screen to show slides! When you're in grade school, the older kids always have the cool shit you don't, so they suck. Then when you get to the next grade, you can't even appreciate the cool shit, 'cause now they've moved on to and got the even cooler shit!


Putting the kids in the middle of the action makes these moments of near-unfathomable historical import more relateable to the kids these programs aim to teach. This could have been done quite poorly, revising history to a ridiculous extreme for the sake of a laugh, but the events fold true to documentation, and the children are awed observers rather than irksome meddlers or fortuitously placed onlookers. Points for acknowledging that Edison did not invent electric light (that was Humphry Davy, 1809), but rather perfected a 50-year-old idea, finally making electric light practical for home use.

Not that there aren't liberties taken, namely during the segment dealing with the first ever car race. I mean, I seriously doubt that history overlooked the "Snoopmobile" entry. I can, however, buy that at one time Snoopy drove his doghouse into the back of a horse-drawn carriage. That friggin' dog. Aw, but we love him. He wears Chucks!


"I only ate the peformance enhancers 'cause I thought they were Chiclets."

"'I figured it out by hiding behind a bathroom stall at school, where I heard you tell your friend Biff exactly how you'd done it!' What the...this is the worst Encyclopedia Brown ever!"

--"The mornin' sun is shining like a red rubber baaaaaaaalll!"

"So while you half-brains were cooped up in here slaving over the push-button hammer, I invented something called a 'strap-on'! This kid in the green will love me for it when she gets older."

--Yes. Yes. Yes. There are honest-to-Isis adult beings in this, as well as all the parts of the miniseries. I have no issue with this. It's absolutely necessary to make the very concept work. The adults must be animated, and they must not be given the wah-nky voices associated with Peanuts specials. They must be coherent for the sake of teaching the viewer about these events. And how can you hate on Alexander Graham Bell's Scottish accent? Next Irvine Welsh novel, that will totally be the male voice in my head while I read the text (replacing the drunk Scot I met in England at ATP 2006. "We're in Room 101. George Orwell, right?" And I swear a Scottish accent makes "George Orwell" sound like "Jim Jarmusch").

However, not everyone understands. To these folk, the presence of adults is anathema to what they imagine Peanuts to be all about. Over at IMDB, it's considered a lapse in judgment at best, and "sacrilege" at worst.

So what should they have done? Just shown kids reading reports with no dramatic action? Should the kids have dressed up to represent the inventors? Linus with a handlebar moustache?

Mr. Schulz not credited as a writer does not mean they trampled his baby. Anything released with the Peanuts brand had to have the great man's pre-approval. If he was fine with clear-speaking adults, no one else has any reason for beef. Thus, it's not in any way "sacrilege", and you'd have to be a semi-coherent dung beetle to think so. And if anyone reading this does in fact believe that they know better than the creators of the fucking shows themselves, and gets turned off by what I'm saying, way too bad. Your belief is idiotic, and it's time someone told you so.

Have a great day otherwise.

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