Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Boy Named Charlie Brown

Director:  Bill Melendez

From seven newspapers to thousands of movie screens.  In just under twenty years, Peanuts had become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon.   While the gang were little kids firmly entrenched in middle-class America, all ages and social classes found themselves drawn to the adventures of the pathetic zig-zag kid and his motley crew.  No one was too terribly surprised, then, when news broke that plans were in the works to bring Peanuts to the big screen.

STORY:  Re-introducing, for your empathy:  a jobber named Charlie Brown.  Plain as the Libyan flag.  Can't fly a kite, can't win at tic-tac-toe, can't snatch a victory on the baseball field, can't keep a toy boat from capsizing in a bathtub as he tries to scrub the accumulated grime of failure from his frame.  This young boy is taking his bumps surely and poorly; his fallen face and sloping posture are all the proof anyone needs if they are still unconvinced that major depression can affect children.  Perhaps it's time for Charlie Brown to speak with his parents about his feelings of hopelessness.


A trip to the psychiatrists office proves useless plus, mainly due to the fact that said doctor is a peer with serious prefrontal cortex damage.  All Charlie Brown can do is take well-meant advice from his best friend and hope tomorrow proves to be a better day.

Charlie Brown's chin is still dragging along the pavement, and Linus is still offering measured encouragement the next morning when his officious-ass sister Lucy--buoyed by her reinforcements--runs up to them and laughingly suggests that the poor boy attempt to kick his bad luck and boost his spirits by volunteering for the class spelling bee to be held that day.  Surprisingly he does and shockingly he wins.  The next day, he competes against the rest of the school--and wins again!  After being carried home like a champion, Charlie Brown is content to luxuriate in his newfound fame and glory.  The ever-avaricious Miss Van Pelt is near-crazed with visions, however, going so far as to name herself his new agent, but Charlie hardly understands the fuss; he's already won the school spelling bee.  What more is there to accomplish?  He soon discovers the more:  his humble local victory has qualified him for the National Spelling Bee at Radio City Musical Hall in New York City.

All of Charlie Brown's old doubts and self-recriminations hurry on back to curl around every curve of his brain.  Him?  National Spelling Bee?  Not even the presence of a rapturous entire student body can ease the dread which hangs over him ("I feel like I'm being drafted," he moans, in typical super-melodramatic fashion).  Once in the big city, Chuck takes full advantage of the chaperone-free environment and begins poring over the approximately one hundred books he brought along, determined to learn the correct spelling of every word in the English language.

Back in the ol' neighborhood, Linus is struggling.  Before Charlie Brown boarded the bus, Linus handed over his beloved security blanket as a sort of good luck charm.  At the time, a noble gesture; by now, a catastrophic misstep.  Only a day or so parted from the comforting cloth, Linus is falling apart--a woozy, wobbling wreck at the best of times; unconscious at the worst of times.  Realizing the error of his ways, Linus approaches his parents and...I mean, he recruits Snoopy to be his bus-buddy and off they go to NYC.  'Cause the boy and blanket reunion is only a Greyhound away.

Or not.  Boy and beagle are overjoyed to see one another again, I mean Snoopy's tail is pounding through the carpet practically, but the blanket?  Oh, um, it seems that in all the excitement Charlie Brown has misplaced Linus's blanket.  Possibly somewhere in the Public Library.  Armed with this information, and desperate to don the cotton crown yet again, Linus takes Snoopy along on a late-night hunt.  While Linus peers through the windows, Snoopy visits the nearby ice rink at Rockefeller Center for some skating and fantasy hockey.  Snoopy loses some teeth; Linus finds nothing. 

Defeated, Linus and Snoopy return to the hotel.  It's the morning of the competition, and Charlie Brown is getting ready.  He's hardly had any sleep, but he still looks pretty sharp in his dress shirt, tie, and dress shoes, the last of which he takes great care to shine with Linus's blanket.

Once Linus is reunited with his true love, sky is the limit!  Off to Radio City!  Tis time to spell!

The competition is pretty fierce:  a girl who's either Asian or just ill; Schroeder's twin; Peppermint Patty with pigtails; Poindexter Franklin; and soulless ginger bastard Schroeder.  The set-up, as seen on the television that all the kids back home are gathered around, is pretty ingenious.  Each child is represented by only their head, which pops off the screen once they inevitably misspell a word.  Pop pop pop, until it's just Charlie Brown versus Schroeder's twin in a clash for the underages.  The drama is high; the tension is palpable.  This could go on for quite some time, especially if they're asked to spell words like "beagle."  Oh look, Charlie Brown's been asked to spell "beagle."

"Beagle.  B-E-A-G-E-L.  Beagle."

Once back home, Chuck refuses to step outside of his bedroom, except to visit the bathroom.  Presumably.  Hopefully.  It's up to steadfast pal Linus to stop by and recalibrate.  "But did you notice something, Charlie Brown?  The world didn't come to an end."

With that, the former champion gets dressed, steps outside, and sees for himself that life has indeed refused to stop just because he couldn't spell the breed of his own pet dog.  Spying his nemesis Lucy tossing a football up into the air, Charlie Brown suddenly believes in himself again.  Believes things are different now.  He won two local spelling bees, for the love of Scripps, what's stopping him now?

Life.  That's what.  And just like at the beginning of the movie, Charlie Brown is on his back, smarting from the acute pain of feeling real dumb. 

Conventional wisdom tells you "first=best," and in this case I just may agree.  I enjoy all four Peanuts films--and hope to enjoy the fifth--but the combination of humor and emotion that made the strip such a treasure is replicated strongest in A Boy Named Charlie Brown10

ANIMATIONStupendousSuperb.  A seven-course meal for the eyes.  Such variety in colors, such motion and emotion achieved within such limited dimensions.  With ABNCB, we are watching masters at work--and play.  Backgrounds are rendered in either watercolor, penstroke, fine lines--or sometimes all three simultaneously.  Whatever serves the scene.

The ice hockey sequence remains such a raucous treat--Rosa Bonheur was Bill Melendez's only competition when it came to bringing an animal to such vivid life.  The religious imagery during Schroeder's Fantasia-esque showcase captivates the senses, hell, even the pop art ending credits deserve a standing O.  There isn't a dull minute to be seen.  10

MUSIC:  For the first time, Peanuts features songs with vocals as well as those predictably glorious instrumentals composed by Vince Guaraldi and arranged by John Scott Trotter.

"Champion Charlie Brown" is the touchstone for the whole film.  It's the first thing we hear, in sprightly, wordless form, and it reappears throughout in beguiling mutations.  The flip side of the coin is the title track, written and sung by famed composer/poet Rod McKuen.  It's a wonderfully melancholic tune, despite featuring lyrics that have been proven untrue in a court of law:  "Charlie has a way/Of pickin' up the day/Just by walkin' slowly in the room." 

McKuen also penned the hysterically mean-spirited "Failure Face."  Asked for his inspiration, he simply stated, "Kids are mean."  A man after Charles Schulz's own heart, certainly.

The return of "Baseball Theme" finds Dr. Funk beasting on those keys.  First heard in A Charlie Brown Christmas, "Skating" reappears with a full orchestra, while "Blue Puck" is some uptempo jazz that would've displeased Tiger Williams greatly (all the better to pummel ya with).  Even "Linus and Lucy" pops up a few times, most memorably in a minor key treatment meant to mimic Linus's moroseness. 

The two standouts for me are Ingolf Dahl's performance of Beethoven's "Sonata Pathetique" during Schroeder's aforementioned solo turn, and Trotter's "I Before E (Except After C)."  Stickier than Roman candy, this rhyming English lesson features Snoopy on the mouth harp and that's all I need to say

Well, actually I should say a bit more.  The soundtrack received a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score, losing out to the Beatles for Let It Be.  Leading up to the ceremony, Paul McCartney himself told ABNCB producer Lee Mendelson that "no way" would the Beatles beat out Peanuts.  Normally moral victories suck, but that's a rare example of one that just might surpass an actual recorded victory.  10

VOICES:  The seventh and final appearance of Peter Robbins as the original voice of Charlie Brown is arguably his finest.  His tendency toward dickishness as an adult is disappointing but nothing can change this fact:  no voice actor since has bested his portrayal of the world's most lovable fictional loser.  10

Pamelyn Ferdin (9) is a contender for the best Lucy ever, when you consider not only her work here but also in Play It Again, Charlie Brown, which aired on TV in 1971.  By turns coy and crude, she keeps Lucy from careening off the rails into irritating shrillness and makes her a foible pointer-outer par excellence.  Which, in the strips, is precisely her legacy.

Andy Pforsich and Erin Sullivan are limited as Schroeder and Sally, respectively, but earn high scores (8,9) for two scenes in which they individually shine:  poor Schroeder going over pitches on the ball field with an oblivious Charlie Brown, and an oblivious Sally explaining courting to poor Linus.  Sally Dryer (8) and Ann Altieri (9) make the most of their time as Lucy's toadies (they get to sing, though!).  Lynda Mendelson is in there too, as Frieda.  Don't blink.  Finally, we have Glenn Gilger making only his second appearance as Linus.  I don't think any child could ever improve on Chris Shea's marvelous performances, which is why this score of 8 should be considered in proper context.  Gilger makes Linus's blanket-anguish palpable, and that's no li'l job. 


--The very first scene shows Charlie Brown, Linus and Lucy lying in the grass, staring up into the lovely blue sky and sharing what they "see" in the cloud formations.  This sequence is a nice introduction (or reminder) of the quirks that make each of the three main child characters special, and was parodied many years later in "The Tell-Tale Head," one of the better episodes from the first season of The Simpsons

--The plot of ABNCB was taken from a brief run of strips printed in 1966. Charlie Brown woke up from his dream before the last ring of the school bell, however....

Hmm...coulda used a song to help him out.

--Charlie Brown's spelling bee words, in chronological order:  failure, insecure, stomach-ache, embarrassment, perceive, unconfident, fussbudget, disastrous, incompetent, beagle.  Pretty easy stuff, with the exception of "embarrassment," which I promise you a not-insignificant number of adults would misspell.


Kinda like how every episode of Hill Street Blues was "featuring Charles Haid."  And no one knew who the hell Charles Haid even was.


I pledge the black circle...the grooves, the needle, and the stylus.

--Peppermint Patty doesn't get to say word one in the film, but I'll be damned if she doesn't have the best sign! 

--After Charlie Brown is beaned by a baseball, Linus suggests they wet a handkerchief to apply onto his head.  Lucy recommends a bed sheet.  So marvelously mean.  I mean if ever a kid deserved to receive four hits from a quarterstaff....

--Staying on the ballgame for a in the world did Charlie Brown's squad ever record an out?  Their opponents just tire themselves to the point of exhaustion, thus hitting a few easy grounders and pop ups?  Or did they just figure, hey, we got our seven runs this inning, let's just bunt the remainder of the game. 

--Lucy's "slideshow of despair" points out many terrible things about Charlie Brown, but none more goosebump-inducing than his "tendency toward fatness."  The "most damaging" slides are unseen by the audience, of course.

--Snoopy the beagle, always into something.

--Following my favorite band from gig to gig over the course of a few summers, I became, begrudgingly, a connoisseur of gazing out of bus windows.  The acreage, the occasional life form (usually four-legged), I took it all in, seeking respite from the untenable situations a Greyhound bus ride typically puts its passengers in.  I know that many times I would sit there wishing I could just get off that rackety breadbox with wheels, let my mind guide my feet, and let my feet guide me.  Sure I'd miss a concert, but maybe I could change my life.  Who knows what I would see, who I would meet.  Is that what Charlie Brown was thinking?  Sure, he's a lot younger than I was when I took these trips, but he's rather an old soul.  Is he wondering, as I often did, what in this world is for him?  What he is for the world?

--A lack of blanket makes Linus a nauseous boy.  He does everything but vomit, and once he reaches the hotel where Charlie Brown and the rest of the contestants are holed up, it takes less than half a minute before he passes out right there in the hallway.  In fact, he experiences three episodes of syncope in less than three minutes, and each time, Snoopy runs off to fill up a glass with water from the hotel room sink.  Once he returns, he drinks the water down in one gulp while Linus remains laid out.  I thought it was the funniest part of the movie as a kid, I think it's the funniest part of the movie as an adult, and I so desperately want the opportunity to do this in real life just once.

--And now for something completely French...Serge Gainsbourg singing "A Boy Named Charlie Brown."


--Now that is a failure face.  

--What is the deal with the swayin' head action here?  Did people do that a lot back then whilst mid-song?

--Chuck just needs to layer up whenever he plays baseball.  Or just show up in shorts.  Surely those rockets being hit back to the mound wouldn't sear off his flesh.

--Forget the pear.  Charlie Brown is shaped like every fruit in the bowl.


Bath time for bozo.

--Did the filmmakers intentionally screw up codeine, leisure and financier?  Y'know, to keep viewers astute?

"Now, he is contented.  Unsuspecting.  Later, his kidneys shall be ours."

--Snoopy dreams of scenes from It's the Great Pumpkin while lying on his back, riding an invisible unicycle.  Fuck yeah, the 1960s. 

--The question of why "beagle" is such a prime-time word at the National Spelling Bee is a fair one.  (The actual winning word at the 1969 National Spelling Bee was "interlocutory."  2011's was "cymotrichous.")

--"Owning ten percent of Charlie Brown is like owning ten percent of nothing!"  Lucy's managing career, over before it truly started.  I still laugh at the clicking sound each time she turns the TV set on and off.

Charlie Brown's Summerfordian luck made for several classics of long form animation.  Of the four Peanuts features, though, only ABCNB and Snoopy, Come Home are currently available on (legal) DVD.  How dreadfully annoying.   Mind you, I think anything less than a Criterion Collection release of this movie is a joke, but I ain't holding my breath.

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