Friday, December 21, 2012

It's the Girl in the Red Truck, Charlie Brown

AIRDATE:   9/27/1988

STORY:  The Girl in the Red Truck is possibly the sore thumb of the Peanuts television franchise.  It's alternate title is "The One That Mixes Animation With Live Action Footage."   Charles Schulz wrote the script with son Monte, and had high hopes for the end product.  Production of the 48 minute special, with legendary televison director Walter C. Miller at the helm,  took four years and cost millions of dollars.  Three months before Red Truck made its small-screen debut, however, the similarly-crafted Who Framed Roger Rabbit? hit the theaters.  It was impossible for critics and the public to avoid unfair comparisons.  While Roger Rabbit was wildly successful and acclaimed, The Girl in the Red Truck was widely panned.  Schulz made it an effort to explain that the shows conception preceded Roger Rabbit by years, but the initial impression that he had created an inferior copycat in a desperate bid for relevance persisted.

On to the show.

The action begins with Charlie Brown retrieving a letter for Snoopy.  It's from his brother Spike!  Instead of just letting Snoopy have his privacy, Charlie Brown insists on reading the missive aloud to his pet.  (Schulz objected to this scene, which is just Infodump 101, but eventually he was convinced that there would actually be people viewing this show who weren't massive fans of the strip and thus would have little to no idea what Spike's story was.)

For those unaware:  Spike is Snoopy's emaciated brother, he wears a fedora that was apparently run over by a 16-wheeler in a torrential downpour before he picked it up from the side of the highway, his sad little moustache could be duplicated by many elderly women, and he lives in the desert in Needles, California.  He speaks with the cacti, plays one-dog frisbee, ponders tumbleweeds, and learns the French language through cassettes on a hand-held player.  And he keeps his eyes peeled for the red pickup truck that passes through his neck of the desert wood, just so he can share a friendly wave with the young woman behind the wheel.

One day, the truck breaks down in front of the besotted beagle.  Spike communicates with the young woman, Jenny, via his language tapes.  She takes an immediate liking to Spike and, once the truck is fixed, offers him a ride to her home.

Jenny is a vivacious aerobics instructor who dreams of a more meaningful career as a jazz dancer.  She lives in a nice beachfront condo with her boyfriend Jeff, who is apparently some fancy record-industry dude in L.A.  Meaningful conflict attempts to arise when Jeff announces that he has arranged an audition for Jenny without her foreknowledge--and the audition is scheduled for the same day as an aerobics class she is expected to teach.

Jenny's peeved, but not so much so that they can't all head to the local roller rink for some wheel-y good times.  But when Spike is accidentally thrown out of the back door, he decides to head back into the desert instead of waiting for Jenny and Jeff.  (I thought dogs were loyal?)  He pals around with some suspiciously Snoopy-esque figures whose faces insinuate inveterate indisposition.  Spike just isn't meant to enjoy the night, though, as soon some rifle-toting yahoos in pickup trucks roll in, ready to take out some coyotes.  Jenny and Jeff arrive in time to save the day, and offer Spike a newer, warmer, safer place to rest his highway-hat.  But old habits die hard if they even die at all, and our cute li'l hero returns to the dry landscape he has come to love.

I've just written a lot about a story that is tepid and sprinkled liberally with cliches.  Sure, coming so soon after a blockbuster film that used the same visual hook didn't help The Girl in the Red Truck, but a fresh and interesting plot may have.  4

MUSIC:  Composer Paul Rodriguez brings us re-imaginings of "The Best of Laura Branigan, Karaoke."  3

ANIMATION:  Spike looks great.  Snoopy has some weird face stuff happening in the introduction, like his facial muscles kinda forgot how to smile for a half-second.  But really, the animation is secondary to the actors.

Jenny is played by Jill Schulz, daughter of Charles, and reviews announcing her irredeemable horribleness are exaggerated.  She does adequately.  Same with Greg Deacon in the role of Jeff.  There's a lot of meaningful gazing expected in the script.  I suspect that reacting to basically nothing isn't easy, so I'll give both of them a 5.5.  The story did not give them the chance to either succeed greatly or fail miserably.  You can only hold on to the bottom of a wet bag for so long.


--Dude in the middle looks like a Snoopy/Woodstock hybrid.  I ain't mad.


Spike's phlegmatic attitude while Jeff bares what remains of his soul is so friggin' California. Everyone there is searching for the undiscoverable, and because the weather is so monochromatic, they're convinced they can find it one day.  Because snow never comes around and forces them indoors where they can realize how lame they are and make the appropriate lifestyle changes to stave off further lameness.  Lesson:  too much sun is no good.

Poor Spike, you can tell he just wanted to catch the next dust wave east and chill with his bro and all the stupid weird-looking kids in the neighborhood.


Mountain Dew, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Ice House, Red Bull and Bud Light.  A little touch of Hagerstown, way out west.


--Damnit rednecks, this is why we can't have nice coyotes.  Except coyotes aren't particularly nice, what with the attacking children and things.  But hey, I just had to hear the head honcho of the National Rifle Association say that the only way to deal with the increasing gun violence in America is to arm more people.  So I'm not too fond of either of ya.

--The visual dissonance of cartoon Spike and his real-life surroundings is so jarring.  It's funny to see him in his element, and the initial novelty is impressive, but when he interacts with people the shortcomings of the production are apparent.  Admittedly the technology was not then what it is now, but it's also the forced feeling that pervades each frame.

Now I'm not saying Spike should've suddenly gone into town on a quest for erotic cakes, but it would have suited Schulz and Co. better to not make him the centerpiece of such an ambitious project.  Not because Spike is a secondary character in the Peanuts universe but because his base of operation is one of limited visual appeal.  Imagine, instead, adults interacting with the animated kids in the neighborhood--the writers and crew could work with residential homes, schools, and baseball diamonds.  Settings familiar to the fans, given a fresh spin, challenging and stimulating to creators and viewers alike.  I mean, they could have shown animated Snoopy lying atop an actual wooden red doghouse!

Charles Schulz knew they had fallen short:  "I wanted this to be my Citizen Kane, but it's not."  It's a shame, to me, that they never tried it again.  I really feel the second attempt would have been wiser in mind and surer in step.   But!  Que sera, sera, blockhead.

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