Saturday, June 28, 2014

He's a Bully, Charlie Brown

AIRDATE:  11/20/2006

Charles Schulz drew up almost 18,000 total Peanuts strips.  For producers seeking inspiration for the next television special, then, the dilemma is selecting which story to tell, not would they find a story to tell. 

The main story of He's a Bully derives from a brief strip run first published in April 1995.  Charles Schulz himself was working on the visual adaptation prior to his passing, with the tentative title It's Only Marbles, Charlie Brown.  The project was put on the back burner for several years, as the fair-to-middling likes of It's the Pied Piper, Charlie Brown and Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown took up airtime.  With the surprise artistic success of 2003's I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown, however, the Peanuts visual brand proved itself still vital.  Or did it?  Was the touching and hilarious showcase for the littlest Van Pelt merely an anomaly?

Interestingly enough, Rerun is a key player in this special as well.  Making his way up to the attic one day, as mischievous children are wont to do while their parents are off doing other things, he locates a jar full of his grandfather's old marbles, as well as the championship trophy that the little bowler-donner earned for his proficiency.  Instantly, he's smitten.

Virtually all the kids are attending Camp Indian Lake for the summer (bar Peppermint Patty, who requires supplemental schooling).  Rerun spies a big kid playing marbles and sees a golden opportunity to learn the centuries-old game, hopefully becoming a master like his granddad.  Lugging the same jar he found in the attic, Rerun approaches the baggy-eyed, disheveled, and perfectly-monikered Joe Agate.  Who as it turns out is a bonafide hustler.  Believing that he was only being shown the ropes, Rerun is inconsolable when Joe informs him he only plays "for keeps" and then casually walks away with all the little boy's marbles.  Upon discovering the deceit, Charlie Brown vows to win back all the aggies, going so far as to lock himself in a boathouse with Professor Snoopy (paws and taws, baby) to practice until he achieves virtuoso status.

The big showdown ends with a Joe Agate victory, but wait!  Snoopy has two spare marbles!  Given a second chance to triumph, Charlie Brown bombs atomically.  Joe is chagrined publicly, as all bullies should be. (This plot twist differs from the original story, where Charlie Brown beat Joe outright.)

A subplot, taken from a series of 1989 strips, concerns Peppermint Patty's overwhelming jealousy over the idea of Chuck and Marcie canoodling at camp.  After several phone calls only serve to further inflame her resentment, Patty abandons education and crashes camp--only to discover that thanks to his training, Charlie Brown hasn't had much contact with Marcie (or any of the other kids) at all.

The relevance of marbles in the 21st century is an issue that should be discussed by people who concern themselves with such trivialities.  You'd rather Charlie Brown best "Joe Nintendo" at Mortal Kombat?  While this decidedly anachronistic Bully does not reach the heights of I Want a Dog, nor does it plumb the depths of that Pied Piper tripe that I swore I wouldn't mention on this site again but here we are!  Definitely worth a watch, with plenty of laughs to be felt.  7

ANIMATION:  Keeps in line with the last few shows.  Clean where need be, messy where need be.  The marble designs pop out at the viewer, but what else would one expect?  Speed, power, puissance--that's why the San Diego Chargers powder-blue jerseys are so iconic.  7.5

MUSIC:  David Benoit at the helm means that the jazz to be sussed is more 80s than any decade prior.  Lacks thoughtfulness, but not obnoxiously so.  7.5

VOICES:  Spencer Robert Scott is our Charlie Brown for this presentation, and I can't help but feel underwhelmed after multiple viewings.  He sounds like a perpetual toe-dipper.   I just wanna push dude into the water, like, acclimate to the temperature already!  7

Stephanie Patton and Benjamin Bryan are serviceable as the biggest Van Pelts (7.5 each).  Peppermint Patty and Marcie are done much justice--that said, I'm giving Rory Thorst and Jessica Gordon matching 8's due to my personal sliding scale for their characters. 

Then...there's Joe Agate.  The antagonist.  The prick kid who cons the other kids out of their precious marbles.  He's voiced by 14-year-old Taylor Lautner, who a mere two years later was cast in the role abbed-out shapeshifter Jacob Black for the Twilight film series.  I swear I do not hold the sins of the future against young Taylor.  Teenage girls screaming the last of their gray matter out of their facial orifices has nothing to do with this show.  Nor does wooden acting that no one cares about because the actor in question is shirtless.  My score of 7 is fair. 


--"Now we ante up."  Yap that fool!

--Not gonna lie, the sporty-ass intro gave me the It Was My Best Birthday Ever, Charlie Brown chills.  Oh wait--haven't reviewed that one here yet.  Heads up:  uh-oh. 

--Why can't I be Snoopy, even if for only a third of the day?

--Eff off, English breakfast! 

Big friggin' pancakes swimming in sweet syrup, served with a side of streaky bacon strips.  And there's no whatever-the-hell-you-call-pudding anywhere on the plate to offend the palate.  

--Snoopy in coach mode never disappoints.  Stern-faced and growling, pushing proteges to peaks previously unfathomed.  Cutest grump ever.

--That's my answer to everything, too!


From page to screen, ain't it a wonderful thing?

--How happy Rerun is to be learning the same game at which his grandfather excelled.  Something old and new at the same time.  Then he gets screwed.  Joe Agate sucks.


"Man....What you have to get about the game of marbles is, you do it a disservice when you just think of it as nothing more than a silly little game.  It's not just a game, and it's not just for kids.  Marbles are spherical.  The Earth is spherical.  Much love to Aristotle.  You play within a sphere.  And unlike real life, skill is valued over luck.  Marbles is kinda like the ideal world, the ideal existence.  The Egyptians understood this.  The Egyptians, man.

"I don't foresee a time when I'll ever stop playing marbles.  I might get rid of some of these bags, though.  Might just walk up to some stupid kid and be all, 'Hey kid, you want some gumballs?'  Then tell 'em make sure they don't eat any till they get home 'cause I don't wanna hafta watch that."


--Fictional attics are always mysterious in their ramshackle beauty.  The attic in my childhood home doubled as my big brother's bedroom, which under the domestic auspices of our mother mean it was kept as kempt as every other room in the house.  Besides that time Reign In Blood scared the Hawaiian Punch outta me, the attic was actually pretty dull.

--"Welcome to the wonderful world of jealousy....For the price of admission, you get a splitting headache, a nearly irresistible urge to commit murder, and an inferiority complex."  

--I was briefly tempted to call Joe Agate the wittiest of all Peanuts bullies, but really, he's just the punniest.  (After losing to Charlie Brown, odds are good he don't wanna be a player no more.)

Nearly two years after He's a Bully, Charlie Brown aired, Bill Melendez died at the age of 91.  A true animation legend whose work spanned 68 years, he was not just a producer, animator, and director, he was the "voice" of Snoopy.  Furthermore, he always will be; archival audio of Melendez was used in 2011's Happiness Is a Warm Blanket and will also appear in next year's Peanuts feature film.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Site Update

He's a Bully, Charlie Brown  June 28
 The Birth of the Constitution  July 4
A Boy Named Charlie Brown  July 12
The NASA Space Station  July 20
Snoopy Come Home  July 28
Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown August 6
Play It Again, Charlie Brown  August 11
3D Like Me August 18-23*
It's Not Nostalgia (It's the 80s Express)  August 24--September 17**
Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown  October 18
It Was My Best Birthday Ever, Charlie Brown  October 23
Jason X  October 31***
The Mayflower Voyagers  November 21
The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk  December 17

As much as I would love for 2014 to be the year in which I initiate my new series reviewing the screen adaptations of some of my favorite novels, it's doubtful I'll find the time.   So, hello 2015!

*Oh shit, it's a Sonic Youth-related review!  A deeply personal look at Nice Ass, Psychic Hearts, East Jesus, Chelsea Light Moving, Last Night on Earth and Coming Apart.
**A look at VH-1's Greatest Songs of the 1980s, and how wrong (or right) they were.
***Live blog of the horror non-classic, as per request.

Friday, June 6, 2014

What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?

AIRDATE:  5/30/1983

STORY:  Just as in my last Peanuts review, Charlie Brown and Sally Brown are hanging out at home.  Chuck is diligently filling up a scrapbook with pictures of lovely French regional architecture, taken during his time as an exchange student.  (That's right; What Have We Learned is considered a sequel, of sorts, to the fourth Peanuts feature film, 1980's Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown.)  Sally is wondering exactly how her brother, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Snoopy and Woodstock made their way back to the United States.

Flashback to France, and the open-ended conclusion of Bon Voyage.  A beret-clad Snoopy is struggling behind the wheel of a Citroen 2CV.  In the midst of some ad hoc auto repairs, Snoopy kicks the car into several dozen pieces.  Silence reigns, until Peppermint Patty suggests they all grab some grub.  (I like the way that girl thinks; always have.)

After filling their stomachs with some rich lunch, Snoopy reassembles the Citroen and drives it to a nearby car rental lot.  Seeing as their old ride now resembles a scrap metal sculpture, a replacement is vital.  The female proprietor is an older French woman who is clearly besotted at the sight of Snoopy decked out in full Flying Ace attire.  The group resume their journey, planning to grab a ferry to London, where they will grab a flight back home.  Night falls, and they pull over, setting blankets out on a nearby beach.  Linus can't shake his restlessness, however, and abandons the gang to take a stroll along the shore.  After several moments gazing at the environs, he excitedly returns to his friends, waking them up to inform them that they are at Omaha Beach, largest of the five beaches that were invaded by Allied forces during World War II, on what would historically come to be known as "D-Day."  "This is where it all started!"  he exclaims, taking them down to the shore so they can learn some more more more more. 

Linus tells a condensed version of the events of June 6, 1944, as (filtered) archival news footage of the combat appears on screen, with the Peanuts kids placed amid the action via rotoscoping.  When day breaks, they visit the 172-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the final resting place of 9,387 fallen American soldiers.  Audio of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower plays on the soundtrack as the children gaze at the rows of white crosses and the garden walls upon which another 1,557 troops whose bodies could not be located or identified have their names inscribed. 

Eventually they return to the car to begin the journey anew.  The solemnity of the last several minutes is momentarily broken up with the appearance of what can only be described as "French Woodstocks."   A stop for breakfast can't deter Linus, who would much rather bury his face in a book about the War then a plate of piping-hot croissants. 

The wisdom of letting the dog drive is once again challenged when he gets lost.  A local boy tells the group they are on the road to Ypres, Belgium--a city that Linus recognizes as the site of one of World War I's most memorable struggles:  the Second Battle of Ypres, fought over April and May of 1915.  The Germans used poison gas on the Western front for the first time in this battle, forcing the British and French forces to immediately develop their own chemical weapons and proper field protection.  Over 100,000 casualties were claimed, one of which inspired Canadian Lt. Col. John McRae to pen the poem "In Flanders Fields," a touching if mildly anachronistic piece that Linus recites amid a preponderance of red poppies.  Once finished, he walks over to his speechless friend and asks simply, "What have we learned, Charlie Brown?"

With that question still ringing in our ears, the action returns to the Brown abode, where Sally calmly points out to her brother that he's pasting the pictures into the scrapbook upside down. 

So you see, these 25 minutes of Peanuts are nothing like the last 25 I reviewed.

Charles Schulz was inspired to create this animated tribute while recovering from open-heart surgery.  A former Staff Sgt. in the Army, Schulz spoke sparingly but proudly of his service.  What Have We Learned is the greatest tribute the man could have possibly offered.  10

MUSIC:  Judy Munsen and Dawn Atkinson provie a soundtrack is downright reverent, wisely utilizing minimal reeds and strings.  9

ANIMATION:  This is movie-quality animation, and from the city to the countryside, cartoon France looks marvelous.  Linus' visual revelation on Omaha Beach is tasteful, stirring and gorgeous.  Not a single second of the real and cartoon worlds meshing comes off as hokey or crass.  10

:  Everyone gives low-key performances.  Brad Kesten and Stacy Heather Tollin voice the Browns and each earn 8's.  Brent Hauer gets a 7.5 for Peppermint Patty, for lack of use.  Michael Dockery is busier a bit as Marcie, and a sugary bilingual treat besides (9).  Jeremy Schoenberg carries the weightiest load as Linus the impromptu tour guide through some of the most harrowing periods in world history, and he acquits himself well (10).

--I heart you, vexed Snoopy.  You make my ventricles glow.

--Check out how handy he is, I mean sure he gets angry quicker than the Incredible Hulk hearing a joke explained, but he's just so damned cute and versatile, his style switches like a--


You killed him!  You beagle-electrocuting stink-frogs!  The rancid spirit of De Gaulle haunts you all to this day!  France, you listen to me, and you listen to me good…

Oh.  He's fine, guys!  Holy crap, do I crave crepes and croissants like crazy suddenly. 

--Are Citroen's really that rickety-rackety?  I get the vibe if you suddenly smashed down on the brakes while driving one, your feet would go through the floorboard.

--Speaking of smashed feet...

I know, Marcie.  I know.


While What Have We Learned understandably does not feature the more gruesome realities of war, the show remains riveting.  The best testimony I can give is that it drove me to read up more on D-Day and Ypres, to explore beyond the gripping visuals beloved by Hollywood and the tidy tales told for the satisfaction of simplistic minds.  (The invasion at Omaha Beach, for example, was actually a military disaster that somehow turned into a bittersweet triumph.)

One of the most magnanimous achievements in animation, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? somehow missed out on an Emmy Award, but did earn a prestigious Peabody Award.  A quote from Charles Schulz about the special was included in the 1999 book Peanuts:  A Golden Celebration makes it clear how proud the creative team was with not only the end result, but the reaction to it as well:  "The Peabody award we received for What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? was a very gratifying response to the program, plus many wonderful letters from appreciative young viewers who said that they now understood what happened on June 6, 1944. We labeled this show with the subtitle A Tribute, because that was exactly what we wanted it to be: no more and no less. It proved also that the characters of Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the others were close enough to being real to handle delicately a subject that other animated characters would destroy."

He was 100% right; Jim Davis wouldn't have dreamed of animating Garfield at Iwo Jima, you know.