STORY: It was Sylvia Cook, an RN at Stanford Children's Hospital, that sent a letter to Charles Schulz in December 1985, with a bold request: a Peanuts short featuring the kids talking about cancer, to be shown in hospitals. Schulz was intrigued by the topic--he'd lost his mother years ago to the disease--but was discouraged by the potential production costs. Cook then contacted the American Cancer Society for assistance, and Schulz was soon convinced to expand her initial idea into a full half-hour special: Why, Charlie Brown, Why?
Linus has made a new friend: sweet, shy Janice Emmons. Janice loves getting on the swings at school, and Linus loves being right there to push her on them. All is idyllic, except...Janice has been bruising a lot lately. She's also been feeling more tired than usual. Sent home from school, the kids learn Janice is in the hospital--she has leukemia.
Linus and Charlie Brown--along with Dr. Snoopy--visit Janice, where she answers their questions about her mysterious illness. Despite her outward optimism, Linus becomes bitter and sorrowful as the months pass. Clouds lift and part when Janice returns to school, a pink cap covering her bald head. Inevitably, a bully boy harshes the marsh when he makes fun of first her hat, then (after the hat falls off) her hairless head.
Janice gets the last, heartiest laugh in the end, when spring comes and the swing set is accessible for the students at school again. As Linus pushes her upward, she lets her cap tumble to the ground--revealing that all of her hair has grown back, thick and lush as ever.
Given the circumstances surrounding this specials origin and the very nature of the show, assigning number grades may strike some readers as tacky...but I have chosen to keep the tradition going. It should go without typing, but Why, Charlie Brown, Why? was wonderfully executed. For handling a sensitive topic with intelligence and heart--and not forgetting to inject some humor--this one gets an absolute 10.
MUSIC: Judy Munsen keeps it harmless...for once, that's good. Starts up upbeat, then, as the story takes an uncertain turn, so does the soundtrack. Including the hymn "Farther Along" is another example of Schulz and co. inserting religion tastefully into a kids show. 8
ANIMATION: Very standard for the time in which it was produced. Visual histrionics not needed here. 8
VOICES: Brandon Stewart and Olivia Burdette are the stars here, as Linus and Janice respectively. Stewart does a fine job getting Linus' fear and confusion across when faced with his new friends diagnosis, but what makes this a 10 are the moments when Linus must endure the ignorance of his peers. Whether it's just barely keeping from screaming from his own sister when she insists that Janice caught leukemia because "she's a creepy kid" or going ballistic on a schoolyard bully who finds Janice's chemotherapy-induced hair loss a total laugh riot, Stewart hits all the right notes. Burdette is a comfortable 8 as the poor Janice, keeping on a brave face even as a brutal disease steals months of her childhood from underneath her.
Adrienne Stiefel's Sally is depended upon to provide some comic relief, and she certainly does. She spends almost the entire time angry, whether it's over school and her mandatory attendance or her abandoned lunch sack. No one ever tells Sally, "Hey, it could be worse!"--that's one lesson the producers decided to let the young audience learn on their own. 9 Her blockhead brother is portrayed by Kaleb Henry, who rocks Ny-Quil in his lunchbox. Oh that's a bit too much...he has a very true Charlie Brown "blah" voice. 5.5
Jennifer Banko is an 8 as Lucy. We'll get to her later. Likewise Dion Zamora's performance as the bully.
MARIE TALLEY BENNINGFIELD
--Faced with their bed-bound friend in the hospital, Charlie Brown and Linus are forced to speak questions no child should ever have to ask. The topper is when Chuck plainly asks Janice, "Are you going to die?" Linus is horrified his pal would even mouth such a terrible sentence, but Janice answers with equal bluntness. Thank you, Charles Schulz, for helping kids feel a little less scared.
--"You get well, Janice, and I'll push you on those swings forever."
Janice has just gone through months of debilitating cancer treatment, so Linus takes it upon himself to be courageous in her stead. If he'd had that trusty blanket on him (and note, his famous lucky charm is absent the entire show) that bully would walk away missing a butt-cheek. But as another lesson, Linus doesn't resort to any physical retaliation, aside from grabbing the bully's collar as he screams in his face, letting this stupid kid know exactly what Janice has been through.
The bully watches as Linus leads a crying Janice towards the school, his repentant words ringing ineffectually behind them.
(Although Why, Charlie Brown, Why? shows this one possible outcome, kids should also know that the appeal to suffering does not always work, because some people are that heartless and self-absorbed. But it's nice to think this one kid learned not to be so judgmental and hurtful towards people and things he doesn't immediately understand.)
--Damn, can we have some comic relief up in here?
EDGAR LAMONT BENNINGFIELD
--The re-growth of Janice's hair is unrealistically portrayed--it would take a longer amount of time for it to be back thick and long as it was before chemotherapy--but this is a half-hour long show.
--Wow, bloggers will nitpick anything. When Linus and Charlie Brown go to visit Janice, they are told she's in Room 402. The boys are momentarily relocated as the nurse comes in to give Janice a shot. When they are told they can return, they enter a door clearly showing Room 404.
--There is no way around this: Lucy Van Pelt is a monstrous little bitch in this special. She is the exemplar par excellence of puerile ignorance and intolerance. As Linus brings her a glass of milk he notes that he visited Janice in the hospital. Lucy immediately freaks out, voicing her concern that leukemia is contagious and refusing to drink the "tainted" milk. Sympathy, empathy--none of these silly affinities apply to Lucy. As I mentioned earlier, she actually voices her theory that Janice's condition is the direct result of her being "a creepy kid." There's ignorance that makes you shake your head...then there's ignorance that makes you shake the shit out of someone else. Linus is enraged, but decides to leave his older, not-wiser sister to stew in her own crude insensitivity.
--There's a pretty amazing sequence where Linus stops by the Emmons household to drop off a gift. Her sisters come to the door, and instead of accepting the present gratefully, decide to let vent their frustration over all the attention their sick sibling is receiving, not to mention how cautious they have to be around her. Linus can't believe it...and so challenged, they admit that they aren't really resentful towards Janice, just confused and helpless. Adding Linus' present to the many already gathered underneath the Christmas tree, the sisters reach a collective epiphany: instead of feeling resentful that Janice is getting all the extra attention, they come to appreciate that so many people want her to get better. It has nothing to do with them. Empathy is a huge lesson for kids to learn, and the sooner the better.
Frankly I think Janice's sister has bigger fish to fret over. Like how she has Frieda's hairstyle, Peppermint Patty's hair color, and Lucy's wardrobe.
Why, Charlie Brown, Why? was the first animated program to openly address the horror of cancer. It would take another twenty years for those murky waters to be broached again, by the PBS hit cartoon Arthur. The success of any children's show aiming to talk about very important issues depends on how the creators honor the emotional and mental intelligence of the target audience. The Peanuts crew hits all the right notes. Children will have many of their questions answered, but not all. As it should be. This show is not a stand-in for the parents. If you pick this one up on VHS, or find it online, be prepared. Do not throw this one on for your child and think you're off the hook. Get ready to talk with them. Do not be afraid. Linus is missing his blanket in this special for a reason.
Above all, be there.