Saturday, February 23, 2013

It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown

AIRDATE:  2/1/1974

STORY:  The first special not directed or produced by Bill Melendez is an underrated minor gem.    (Kinda like the malachite to A Charlie Brown Christmas' amethyst.)  Phil Roman takes over and...does a bang-up job, just in case you thought the praise contained in the prior sentence was somehow disingenuous.  Heaven forfend!

The premise is flimsy, whimsical, and fun.  Woodstock's nice new nest is nicked right outta the tree, and the distraught yella fella calls upon Snooplock Holmes to solve the mystery of the missing bundle of domesticity.  Together, the pair canvas the neighborhood; Holmes is decked out in cloak and deer stalker cap, blowing insouciantly on a bubble-pipe, all the better to on occasion give flight to a monumental bubble that bursts and drenches Woodstock with uncanny timing and precision.

Their investigation doesn't go very well at first, given that in addition to entering homes without a search warrant, nosing around for physical evidence and dusting for fingerprints ('cause Holmes has his own "Original Fingerprint Pad" wouldn't you know) the investigator must also ask questions of the suspects, and they cannot answer the questions, because they are being asked by a dog, and dogs cannot form words.   Almost all the children are by turns confused and irritated by this inquisitive animal invasion, with the exception coming in the form of one Peppermint Patty.  She engages Snooplock in a rather one-sided round of "cops n' robbers," donning an eye-mask and fake-shooting at the beleaguered beagle as they run a mini-marathon around the spacious Reichardt homestead.  

Upon making their escape, Snooplock and Woodstock trudge on, following some pre-teen-looking footsteps to the elementary school.  Peering in, they spy what appears to be the room used for science class:  there are beakers, Bunsen burners and...a "prehistoric birds nest" in a display case! 

Amazingly, one of the windows is open, allowing the pair to just sneak on in and retrieve the nest.  I guess the school operates under the philosophy that they should only worry about security during actual school hours.  

The next morning, Sally is livid--her science exhibit is missing!  She found a nest "so self-respecting modern bird could have built it!" and now it's gone and she demands restitution.  Enter Judge Lucy Van Pelt, who turns her booth into a bench to settle this heated dispute of finders-keepers vs. losers-weepers.  (Lamentably, Snoopy is not wearing his Joe Attorney bowler hat, but rather his...dotted bow-tie?)

The court rules in favor of the bird, naturally, but all is not lost for poor whiny Sally.  While she can no longer present a not-quite prehistoric bird nest for her exhibit, her big brother provides a boss solution:  Pavlov's Experiment, with Snoopy as the conditioned hound.  

Peanuts specials in their second decade were still consistently strong.  While this is not a tale of any great emotional resonance, It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown is still highly amusing and well-paced, earning a 9.

MUSIC:  The Guaraldi soundtrack is funky as the bottom of a Denny's dumpster, popping bass like corn and massaging the electric organ into a contended nap.  At the start, a key-happy version of "Little Birdy" segues into a rendition of "Snoopy and Woodstock" that would make the Fatback Band very happy indeed.  First heard in It's the Easter Beagle, "S & W" remains bliss unblemished.  A friendship as fun and true as this deserves a theme song that makes you wanna ram your face into a plate of sausage biscuits swimming in gravy.  MMM.  Perfect 10.

ANIMATION:  '70s Nuts, which can be read as:  Super Fantastic Colossal Tremendous Bacon Pancake Burger with Sweet Potato Fries and a bowl of mayo dip it all in.  The brief scene of developing storm clouds in the first act of the special is, on its own, more interesting to watch than three entire other Peanuts specials I could name.

Everything is rendered warmly, and the character movements are near-flawless, especially with regards to Woodstock and his fluttering flits.  9

VOICES:  Here, we encounter some struggle.

Todd Barbee does a perfectly fine Chuck (8), and Lynn Mortensen is a classic Sally, pissed off as ever over the educational system and its unfair expectations (such as assigning homework, for example) for a well-earned 8.5.   

The Van Pelts are a bit more uneven.  Stephen Shea steals the whole show in his too-brief cameo as Linus (9).  His steadfast faith in canine detective is a joy to behold.  As is his insistence on speaking solely in rhyming couplets and irritating his big sister.  Speaking of her...Melanie Kohn is nondescript and would be a mediocre 6.5 if not for the glorious organ-shredding scream she gives her rhyming-ass little brother earning her an extra half-point.

To round out the good stuff, I have to talk about Bill Melendez' Snoopy here.  Yes, he's outstanding in every one of these things because, um, it's Snoopy, and Snoopy is awesome.  But there's a couple scenes here where, as Snooplock, he goes above and beyond vocally.  There's his brief but hilarious interrogation of Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens, a thoroughly confused 9) but especially his "A-HA!" upon finding a broom straw that he suspects might be a nest-remnant in the Van Pelt living room.  Amazing work, Snooplock.  

This leaves two rather underwhelming performances.  Tom Muller isn't around much as Pig Pen, but oh Lord, kid, the trick is to sound like you're not reading off a piece of paper.  4.  But more irritating still?  I can't believe I'm typing this, but Peppermint Patty.  Donna Le Tourneau was not made for this character, at least not at the age she's animated to be.  Maybe Patty at awkward-age 13.  She sounds like Bea Arthur doing an impression of Thurl Ravenscroft, I'm sorry!  She needs a throat lozenge as desperately as the city of Philadelphia needs the plague.  It's especially galling since she has the best sequence here with Snoopy, the cops 'n robbers chase.  Just watch it with the volume low, is all I can suggest.  Good grief...4.5.


--If nothing else, the viewer can take away the lesson of friendship, as Snoopy truly loves his bird buddy and would do anything to right his ship once bumped off course.  Up to and including elongating his arm.  

--So how long ya think Snoopy's been waiting to use that detective get-up, anyway?  

--Invisible elevator!  Almost as amazing as popsicle-stick skyscraper next to escalator that goes nowhere.  

--Charlie Brown's pajama top has some incriminating hairs on it!  


--I'm with Sally when it comes to school.  The teachers don't get their due so they don't really care, the kids don't get their due because the teachers don't care.  What is school?  Institutionalized ritual that revolves around an agreed-upon set of life skills that, if not acquired, will lead to the damnation of all humanity.  The implicit lesson of school is that individuality, if heartily and stubbornly pursued, will doom one to a life lived on the margins.  The bereft, filthy, despairing margins.  That we are also taught never to write on the outside of.