Sunday, May 25, 2014

It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown

AIRDATE:  Straight-to-video, 9/12/00.  Wondering why this show has never aired on TV is akin to wondering why a VW Bug has never won the Indy 500.

STORY:  A great reward of fiction is the escape into a new world, or a familiar world viewed through a different lens.  A great risk of fiction is the possibility that said new world is a stultifying environment populated by vapid characters.  Your brain will be either electrified or enervated. 

Since the early 80s, the world of Peanuts has been an enriching one for me.  Every bit as much as the masters that lined his bookshelves, Charles Schulz created a work of art for the ages.  No matter the era, I can find a strip that is hilarious, a strip that is heart-wrenching, a strip that puzzles, or a strip that validates.  Beyond even the preternatural musings of pre-teens with odd bodies I can flip open a book and marvel at the unique penmanship of Schulz, who used strokes and curves the way Caravelli used chords and scales.

Schulz didn't shy away from taking his young characters out of their comfort zone, and this bravery made for not only some great strip runs, but also some memorable TV specials and movies--Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown, Bon Voyage Charlie Brown, the This Is America mini-series spring immediately to mind. 

It also made this special possible.

The Pied Piper is a German legend (but aren't they all?) re: a pipe-playing figured decked out in flamboyant attire, hired by the long-suffering citizenry of Hamelin to banish the rodents that have overrun their town.  When the townsfolk refuse to recompense their savior, he retaliates by enchanting their children and leading them out of town. 

It's a story that's been told for centuries, one that I first read in fairytale collections as a young lass, and so when given a choice between it or War and Peace, of course Sally Brown is going to prefer that her brother read the shorter book aloud. 

The rats driving the town crazy are "sports mice," apparently, although they do much more than just kick soccer balls about.  They skate, they skateboard, they Flatley, they even line dance.  (Turns out line-dancing is tolerable only when done by mice.  Then again I'm a sucker for animals wearing hats.)   They annoy the shrill card-playing adults on their way to Charlie Brown's pitchers mound and Schroeder's toy piano. 

Something, clearly, must be done.  Charlie Brown visits City Hall and offers a solution to the suitably stuffy Mayor:  a pied piper whose gift of song will hypnotize those pesky vermin, causing them to follow him in perfect step, out of the town and out of their lives.  The desperate Mayor agrees, the Piper materializes, and of course it's Snoopy, wearing the de rigueur cap and gown of all Robin Hood U. grads.  His "pipe" is actually an accordion, which is an instrument comprised of a bellows, reeds and keys.  No pipes.  The only accordion pipes you will ever find belong inside of cars or inside of homes.  I don't get the switcheroo here.  (Snoopy would look super-cute playing the flute.)

After signing a contract promising the payment of one years worth of dog food for a job well done--keep your glory, gold and glitter, Snoopy requires only silver cans stuffed fulla canine chow--the beagle precedes to work magic and make them vermin disappear.  However, upon his return to City Hall, Snoopy's hopes are thwarted when the Mayor pulls the ol' "this document wasn't notarized" trick to avoid paying the so-called "piper."  Peeved, Snoopy begins to work the bellows and soon the Mayor and his flunkeys are following the beagle to the outskirts of town, where they start up a stupid campfire and sing some stupid song for three stupid minutes. 

Cut back to the Brown house.  Sally doubts the credulity of such a tale, but wait!  What's that outside?  Why, it's Snoopy and his accordion!  And that's Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty and Franklin zombie-shuffling 'round his doghouse! 

In that ending is contained the major problem with this special:  it is not fun.  The animals seem to be the only ones enjoying themselves.  The humans are, by turns, resigned/afraid/devious/drab.  The Peanuts characters placed inside a fairytale world should be bright and brilliant, ebullient and enjoyable.  (The Monkees pulled it off!  Won an Emmy even!  Mike Nesmith cross-dressed!  And didn't shave!)  Instead, It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown is a wretched disappointment.  If A Charlie Brown Christmas is a heaping lobster Reuben, Pied Piper is a cold grilled cheese.    To quote Joan from Mad Men:  "This was completely unnecessary."  1

MUSIC:  David Benoit at the helm.  I know a score of 3 sounds bad, and it is, but the soundtrack is really the least disgraceful element of the whole show.

ANIMATION:  Pied Piper was the final Peanuts special to feature the traditional cel animation (it's all digital paint and ink these days). As send-off's go, only Col. Henry Blake's was grimmer.  The character designs are clumsy throughout, and once you realize that Snoopy hasn't even been done justice by the animators, all you can do is pray for the best and brace for the worst.  His eyes, normally so playful and vibrant, are beadier than usual and thus dull dull dull.  His ears are mostly white, with some black--a terribly amateurish design decision that almost convinced me I was watching a knock-off.  His smile, usually so contagious, is crooked as a three-card molly game on Lombard Street.  His nose is drawn and colored to resemble an Oreo cookie.

The backgrounds seem ashamed to be seen.  The hyperactive rats, in contrast, are animated wonderfully.  Watching them do their obstructive thing is riveting.  It's like the animators put time and effort into bringing these little pests to life!  3

VOICES:  As Charlie and Sally Brown, Quinn Beswick and Ashley Edner are duly blah, so either they're the most perfect performances possible, or just unspectacular.  5's for each.  Corey Padnos and Rachel Davey do slightly better (6) for their portrayals of the Van Pelt siblings.  I dunno.  The animation and story are so overwhelmingly crap that things such as mediocre voice-acting just come off as so much toilet water.

Frank Welker and Joan Van Ark do fine as the Mayor and his secretary, respectively, but extraordinary performances would have been wasted on such a putrid script.  I hope Lee Mendelsohn apologized to them afterwards. 


--Producer Julia Phillips, the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Picture, was also a quick-witted, razor-tongued drug addict who took a Snoopy doll with her to rehab.  Lisa Marie Presley considered her Snoopy doll to be her only friend growing up, going so far as to dress him up and take him to school with her. At a Carnegie Hall benefit, composer Leonard Bernstein approached Snoopy--actually, Judy Sladky in costume--put his hands on either side of the beagle's soft, bulbous nose and proclaimed, "You are a genius."

You know why Snoopy inspires such affection?  Why Snoopy and not Muttley?  Because Snoopy represents the whole of life.  When Snoopy desires to dance, he dances.  He puts his entire body into the act, so that even his ears seem to be moving in their own unique rhythm.   He realizes that to eat is to live.  He would do anything for his best friend, even rassle with a 50/100/200 pound cat.

But not all is biscuits and gravy.  Snoopy knows pain.  Remember when his doghouse burned to the ground, destroying all of his possessions?  Remember when Snoopy found out that one can of dog food per month is not adequate payment for fire insurance?  Who can forget the time Snoopy jumped onto his supper dishes and broke his foot?  I wept! 

Point!  Snoopy is beloved worldwide and he has earned every iota of this adoration.  I love Snoopy more than 98% of my own family (hey, guys!) because frankly he's more loyal.  However, I am not so besotted as to be incapable of objectivity.  Pied Piper didn't make me love Peanuts any less; it made me love myself less.


--I'm gonna retrieve my DVD of this and write SUCKS on it.  'Cause it sure does suck on it.


Yes.  That is Snoopy yakking on a cell phone.  Repeated assurances from the creative team that there will be no similar nods to modern technology in the upcoming Peanuts full-length film warmed the cookies of my heart.

--Seriously, the beginning sequence of Snoopy on his doghouse could have taken place in one of the rooms at Overlook Hotel.


No, Snoopy!  Hang in there!  I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is just three years away!

So there's my review of the final Peanuts show produced while Charles Schulz was alive--a fact that's so depressing I think I'm gonna go curl up on my Snoopy sheets and sob convulsively whilst clutching a Snoopy doll. 

Watching the DVD with my best friend was a desultory experience.  It was like staring into a sinkhole and hearing the screams of the children trapped inside.  I yearned for relief.  I wanted so badly to reach down, punch a hole in my stomach, rip out two feet of intestine, hurl them onto the floor, and stomp on 'em with a ferocity that would make the Brothers Johnson proud. 

While Pied Piper is not the only bad special to bear the Peanuts brand, it is easily the worst.  You can't even depend on Snoopy to save the day somewhat because they fuck Snoopy up.  He plays an accordion!  He looks like a fourth-grader drew him!  Roddy Piper painting half of his body black for his Wrestlemania VI match with Bad News Brown made more sense than anything that occurs within these 25 minutes of hell.  Avoid this DVD.  Watch any other Peanuts show.  Do a binge-watch of Peanuts shows.  Don't endure what I had to.  I don't want you to feel my pain.  I would much rather you share my joy.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Happiness Is A Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown

AIRDATE:  10/1/2011 (initially released straight-to-DVD 3/29/2011)

STORY:  The 45th Peanuts special is 45 minutes long.  It's also the first without the direct involvement of the legendary Schulz/Mendelson/Melendez trio.  Andrew Beall (Wall-E, Up) and Frank Molieri (The Simpsons Movie) share the directors chair, while Craig Schulz and Stephen Pastis (Pearls Before Swine) are credited as writers, along with Craig's father.  For inspiration they looked to the strips of the early sixties.

Meaning that linearity is blessedly shunned.

Grandma Van Pelt's imminent visit is the bass line around which the neighborhood plays.  The relative solace of a grand ol' ballgame; Lucy and the Sisyphean folly of loving a musician; and most persistently, Snoopy's desire to separate Linus from his soothing blue cloth before the old woman can.  Ultimately it is sister Lucy who spells doom with contest-winning aplomb, first turning Linus' security blanket into a kite, then freeing it.  His subsequent anguish and withdrawal is heavy duty stuff, less the typical temper tantrum of a tot and more a full-grown, full-blown panic attack. 

Eventually, boy and best friend are reunited, but not before he has received substantial guff for his alleged "addiction."  Fed up, Linus take to the majestic soapbox that is Snoopy's doghouse, and dares to ask:  "Are any of you secure?"  He does not hesitate to highlight the foibles of his friends:  Schroeder's obsession with Beethoven, Snoopy's preoccupation with suppertime, Lucy's unrequited longing for the kid obsessed with Beethoven, Sally's unrequited longing for the kid yelling at everybody from atop a friggin' doghouse.  Not since Ned Flanders snapped on the shoddy handiwork of charitable Springfieldians has there been such a glorious mass dressing-down.

In the end, Grandma arrives and a detente is reached between she and Linus.  Between Snoopy and Linus, though?  Nah.

Lesson:  security is valuable.  Value your security.  9

MUSIC:  When seeking a composer to bring a sound that was familiar without being beholden to the past specials, the producers could not have done much finer than Mark Mothersbaugh.

Saying goodbye to a once-lucrative gig with new wave pioneers Devo at the beginning of the 1990s, Mothersbaugh took his quirked-out musical sensibility into commercials, television programs, and eventually movies.  In particular, his work with director Wes Anderson on The Royal Tenenbaums was not only highly-acclaimed but majorly influenced by the music of the late Vince Guaraldi, with Mothersbaugh stating in interviews that he saw Anderson's film as a "live-action Peanuts."  It made sense, then, for the Warm Blanket team to reach out.  But what seemed to be a collaboration made in heaven almost didn't happen when Mothersbaugh's agent informed the producers that their client explicitly refused to work on any straight-to-DVD release.  This tune changed once Mark found out that the suitors in question were calling for a Peanuts straight-to-DVD release and not some dopey flick about a sentient popsicle.

The soundtrack is an indisputable 10 to my ears, a perfect example of how to pay tribute without stooping to toadyism.  Guaraldian tinkles and flourishes are plentiful and tasteful, and the Jaws-esque mini-theme for vulture Snoopy is mangoes.

ANIMATION:  Not only does Warm Blanket boast the most brilliant animation to grace a Peanuts special in years, it boasts some of the most brilliant in a Peanuts special ever.  The classic look is a firm hug that combines the traditional 2D (hand-drawn, hand-painted) with some visual staging that, while not innovative, are nonetheless pretty novel in the grand history of the Peanuts shows.  The hue selections are engrossing, especially the reds and yellows.  The figures and faces are rendered in the Schulzian style that will never grow old 10

VOICES:  First off...Grandma is a trombone.  Happy?

Yet again the real star of the show is not the titular worrywart.  Linus is frequently sage, sporadically sarcastic, and always in search of security.  He's also quite cute, which not all the children who've voiced him manage to convey.  Austin Lux gets it right (9).

Chuck Brown is handled well (8) by Trenton Rogers, who also speaks for Schroeder.  Amanda Pace's Sally is naive and speaks in slippery syllables--in other words, she too nails her part (8).  Grace Rolek also earns an 8 for her alternately coy and cloying Lucy (as standard, it's what she does in the presence of her would-be darling rather than says that stands out).

Violet, Patty and Shermy are voiced by, respectively, Blesst Bowden, Ciara Bravo, and Andy Pessoa.  Great to see the original characters represented, if underrepresented.  7 for each.

Shane Baumel does okay (6) as Pig Pen.  Bit wispy, perhaps.  As with the devil in a blue dress, it's what the walking mud puddle does that distinguishes him in this story.  I shan't spoil the surprise.



"Take the cereal.  Leave the milk."

--This special contains the second-best use of the term "future husband." Oh hai, Sally Brown's broken heart.

--The "air rescue service" are the ones who finally locate Linus' blanket, floating all lonely in "the ocean," and they send him a telegram.  A telegram.  Stop.  No, seriously, stop.  My stomach is cramping.

--Linus lashes out in the vicinity of Sally, bemoaning yet again how he will be but a shell of his former self sans blankie, when a kite impales itself on his upraised fist.  Just a second later, Charlie Brown crashes into a nearby tree.  I mean like the Justice Star into Coruscant.  This sequence is hilarious, especially because in real life a child would end up in traction.

--But my favorite moment in the entire show just might be the two-toned montage that occurs after Linus asks Charlie Brown if he is ever beset by doubt or anxiety (which in the main is a dumb question).  Among other iconic scenes, the very first Peanuts strip ever published is animated.  I was totally blindsided by this scene the first time I saw Warm Blanket and felt compelled to rewind it several times.  I almost can't believe they did it, and I'm so glad they did. 



We like explosions that involve painted wood.

--Flying kites, kicking balls, wooing gingers, building cardhouses...forget it, kid.  Detonating fail-bombs, though?  Chuck's a five-star general at that shit.

--Linus goes voracious, veracious and vicious on a friend:  "Do you want to see me unhappy?  Do you want to see me insecure?  Do you want me to end up like Charlie Brown?"

--A telegram, y'all.  In case anyone is concerned that next year's Peanuts feature film will be a crass car-crash of a cash-in, I behoove you...breathe.  Find greater things to focus your outrage upon.  The one TV set shown in Warm Blanket has rabbit ears.  There will be no concessions to the iWorld from the Peanuts camp.  You will not see Lucy advertising her Twitter page on her psychiatrist's booth.

--Speaking of know, Lucy would have been a good girl if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.