With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts ran for nearly 50 years, but despite the sheer volume of work produced over that time, Schulz’s simplicity remained one of his trademarks as a writer and especially as an artist. It’s understandable, then, that some hardcore fans might bristle at the conversion of Peanuts into a big-budget computer-animated movie—in 3-D, no less—from Blue Sky, the studio that produces the stupid, lumbering Ice Age movies, among others. But the Peanuts characters have made the trip to the big screen before, and while the four features released between 1969 and 1980 don’t have the flash of post-Pixar animation, they still represent a major departure from the strip’s aesthetic, by simple virtue of running in the vicinity of 80 minutes in full color, often with a score of time-killing songs. Computer animation may seem like a greater affront to the Peanuts style, but that’s just the medium at hand. To some degree, the original Peanuts movies only now look charmingly retro because the newest one is over three decades old, not because they were steadfast in devotion to Schulz.
Of course, the original films benefit from Schulz’s direct involvement; he’s credited as sole screenwriter on all four, though it’s difficult to picture him at a typewriter, shaping Snoopy’s antics and Charlie Brown’s laments into proper screenplay format, rather than sitting at a drafting board. It’s even harder to picture this after watching the Peanuts movies, all of which have central stories but nonetheless feel (to varying degrees) like patchworks of vignettes, musical interludes, and repurposed comic-strip dialogue that may not have required an airtight screenplay. It’s a pleasantly unhurried and offbeat vibe, complemented by continuing the TV-special tradition of using real and not especially actor-y kids for the voiceover work. Even compared to the more leisurely paced Disney movies of the era, the Peanuts features are digressive and rambling in a way that could easily become maddening for less-patient viewers.
Though none of the films are exactly traditional animated musicals, songs provide major padding, particularly on the first two films, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and Snoopy, Come Home (1972)—probably not coincidentally, the two that manage to crest the 80-minute mark. Though the catchy Off-Broadway musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown predated the release of the first movie by two years, movie songs like “Failure Face” (named for Lucy’s diagnosis of Charlie Brown’s combined physical and psychological condition) and the “Moses Supposes”-style spelling ditty “I Before E” are more nagging and less tuneful than their stagebound counterparts, featuring generic children’s-chorus singing rather than pro stage actors. The non-diegetic title song from A Boy Named Charlie Brown is even worse, the kind of soppy crooning (complete with incongruous and cringeworthy lyrics about “seeing Charlie smile”) that often nets an Oscar nomination—and did, of course, though it rightfully lost to The Beatles. Even as a counterpoint to opening scenes of Charlie Brown building and rebuilding an ill-fated kite, the song is a lousy fit for the Peanuts world.
The songs of Snoopy, Come Home aren’t quite so intrusive—a low-voiced sing-song intonation of “No Dogs Allowed” whenever Snoopy encounters that vexing sign, a jaunty Woodstock-whistled melody, and a dopey but less actively irritating paean to Snoopy and Woodstock’s friendship as they make their way across the country, or county, or possibly just a township. Though new locations, along with the presence of music not composed by Vince Guaraldi (who died between the release of the second and third films), seem to be part of what separates the Peanuts movies from the TV specials of the era, most of the four films are fascinatingly vague about their locations, with the notable exception of Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) (1980), which sends the kids to a chateau in France by way of London. That’s the furthest-flung and most specific destination of the movies, but all four are nonetheless driven by some kind of departure from the characters’ unnamed hometown.
The first crack at this formula, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, takes its time, planting seeds of the disappointment that leads Charlie Brown to compete in a national spelling bee (possibly though not definitively in New York) but not actually beginning the spelling-bee story in earnest for a full half-hour. Snoopy, Come Home works a little faster, sending Snoopy out to visit his retconned previous owner, which leaves the other characters in their natural habitat. But both Bon Voyage and Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977) send the kids out of town faster and more decisively. Though neither of the later movies are exactly fast-paced, they’re even shorter than their predecessors and somewhat more plot-driven, as if attempting to jumpstart the usual rhythms of Peanuts animation. Race For Your Life feels particularly amped, with the summer-camp framework of a river-raft race between the boys, the girls, and a trio of evil campers (and, oddly, no one else), but it turns out that amping up Peanuts can easily turn it into a slightly quirky Saturday-morning cartoon. The evil campers even have a mean cat sidekick to spar lamely with Snoopy. Bon Voyage has more plot-related promise, featuring a mysterious letter from France, addressed to Charlie Brown, directing him and Linus to a chateau where they appear not to be welcome. After a promising start and some fun travelogue antics, the intrigue just fizzles out via the usual series of Peanuts gags.
Make no mistake: These gags can be a lot of fun. Some of them are adapted straight from Schulz’s strip, like the escalating tension between Charlie Brown and an endlessly nudging Peppermint Patty when they’re forced to share a desk at their French school in Bon Voyage. (In the strip, they share a desk when Charlie Brown attends Patty’s school after his collapses.) Others work specifically for animation, like the same movie’s sequence where Snoopy heads to a French sports bar, downs root beer after root beer, and oscillates between elation and maudlin despair depending on what song plays on the jukebox.
Snoopy is responsible for some of the biggest departures from the comic strip. As the strip developed from its humble beginnings, Snoopy became decidedly less doglike, walking on his hind legs and acting out more human fantasies, complete with elaborate costumes and running jokes about the spatial elasticity of his doghouse (purported more than once to contain a pool table). Though placing Peanuts in animation (whether in TV specials, films, or its short-lived Saturday morning series) traditionally mutes Snoopy’s thought balloons, the films also push the realities of Snoopy’s behavior to a sometimes-delightful, sometimes-ridiculous breaking point. In the strip, Snoopy occasionally serves as someone’s silent, incompetent attorney, or is mistaken for a fellow kid by Peppermint Patty. In the movies, Snoopy goes from attempting to ride a bus in the first two (bus travel figures heavily into the Peanuts universe) to driving his own motorcycle in Race For Your Life, then fully renting and operating a car in Bon Voyage, where he chauffeurs around four children to absolutely no amazement or protest from anyone. Even the gag of Peppermint Patty mistaking him for a human feels a little weirder when, in place of a running gag, a movie devotes minutes at a time to the deeply sad spectacle of Patty enjoying a romantic afternoon with Snoopy without realizing he’s an animal.
The Peanuts movies, then, are as gently episodic and low on melodrama as their source material, while also pushing the wackiness. (Snoopy drives that car beneath the surface of a river, and it shakes the water off when it emerges on dry land.) So evaluating them can be a tricky proposition, depending on whether viewers place greater importance on conveying the strip’s general tone, or on adapting it into something resembling an 80-minute narrative. A Boy Named Charlie Brown comes closest to the former by spending time with Charlie Brown in his natural habitat. “I can’t fly a kite and I lose every ball game I play in,” he notes early on, summing up an all-around failure of all-American boyhood. Plenty of these failure scenes are familiar from both the strip and TV, but it’s still invigorating to watch a cartoon at least nominally aimed at children traffic in great non-punchlines like “these psychiatric treatments are going to bankrupt me.” (Not for nothing was “sigh” practically a catchphrase in the strip.) Boy also finishes well, with Charlie Brown, who has succeeded at spelling bees by knowing how to spell words that figure into his life like “disastrous” and “incompetent,” realizing his worst fears of humiliation and defeat. The consolation he eventually receives from Linus is beautifully simple and true: “The world didn’t come to an end.” Soon Charlie Brown is ready to take another crack at Lucy’s football—and that willingness still won’t guarantee success. It’s a canny fusion of the comic strip’s familiar, dependable rituals and the slightly bigger events required by a feature film.
But in between its lovely, funny opening and closing moments, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is sometimes weighed down not just by the terrible songs but by some less-terrible but not especially interesting interludes where the animators get to experiment. Snoopy ice-skates at a rough approximation of Rockefeller Center, and the movie pauses for footage superimposing silhouettes of what look like live-action hockey players; Snoopy plays the National Anthem on a stereo system, and the movie pauses for semi-psychedelic imagery. In theory, these scenes give the animators a chance to stretch from the charming hand-drawn look of Schulz’s style (complete with crayon-like effects when any of the characters redden in jealousy or anger). In practice, they help run out the clock.
Before mostly receding from the final two films, these sorts of diversions are better-integrated into Snoopy, Come Home, much of which is essentially a hobo picaresque starring Snoopy and Woodstock. Snoopy kicks off his travels following the hostility he experiences via No Dogs Allowed signs, as well as his own insistent impudence, which includes physical confrontations with both Linus and Lucy. It’s helpful to remember that these are G-rated movies that will probably be shown to children, and children will likely like Snoopy, Come Home the most. The focus on Charlie Brown’s wacky beagle helps the movie shine for kids, even as it may disappoint adults with its reduced roles for the human characters. (Peppermint Patty gets more to do in Race and Voyage.)
While those human characters do add up to an ensemble of sorts, the movies’ plot mechanics tend to simplify many of those roles into glorified cameos. Snoopy, cinematic in his silent-movie way, obviously gets plenty of screen time even when his name isn’t in the title; otherwise, the films’ stories often zero in on Charlie Brown and Linus. They’re paired repeatedly: Linus is the only (human) regular who watches Charlie Brown’s final spelling bee in person in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and they’re both chosen as their school’s exchange students in Bon Voyage. It makes sense; Charlie Brown’s everyman losing streak works well with the more philosophical bent of Linus, and there probably isn’t much depth to mine from the likes of Pig-Pen, Violet, or even steadfast Schroeder. But the Charlie Brown/Linus relationship doesn’t deepen much either over the course of the series. Mostly, it just becomes clear that Schulz and his longtime animation collaborators Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson find them more interesting than other long-running Peanuts characters (fussbudget Lucy, especially, gets the short shrift). They’re focal points of the most famous Peanuts TV specials, too, the first of which aired only four years before the 1969 release of the first film.
Those specials are as much the competition for the films as the original comics, both in terms of audience affection and, most likely, the resources that produced them. (Mendelson and Melendez were instrumental in both the films and the TV specials, and the films and specials made close together sometimes share the same kid voices that were otherwise age-cycled out pretty regularly.) Though it’s much shorter and less narratively ambitious, A Charlie Brown Christmas is still a hell of a head-start on any feature film, especially considering that Peanuts is, to be honest, an odd fit for features. As a comic it’s an often pitch-perfect mixture of gag strip and character-based miniature storytelling; even Schulz’s longer-form comic-strip stories (a few of which are echoed in the films) have a different feel than genuine serial strips. His dedication to the utilitarian aspect of comic—his not-unfounded assumption that readers generally require some kind of gag or punchline, no matter how melancholy—keep even his longest-running stories from becoming as joke-free and narrative-driven as, say, a former gag strip like Luann (and yes, in the world of modern newspaper strips, the abrupt, start-stop storytelling of Luann qualifies as narrative-driven).
The Peanuts films provide those bedrock gags and notes of melancholy, and they attempt to tell some bigger stories that take advantage of the wider, more colorful canvas and might not work as well in a three-to-four-panel comic strip. Yet their effectiveness is more intermittent than those old four-panel strips, and while they don’t operate on a straight downward trajectory, the returns diminish in a way that reading the strip never really does. It’s not impossible to make an entertaining, mostly faithful movie out of Peanuts. But Blue Sky, Schulz descendants, and fans take heed: It doesn’t seem especially easy to do so four times.
1. Snoopy, Come Home
2. A Boy Named Charlie Brown
3. Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!)
4. Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown