(1969) dir. Bill Melendez
Friday night movie night with the kids this week featured the first feature-length theatrical film starring the Peanuts gang, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The first of four feature-length films, all directed by Bill Melendez, the man who brought Charlie Brown and company to the small screen in such classic shows as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965), It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973) among many, many, many others and less-notable efforts.
Still, Melendez managed to create a unique style and character for the Peanuts gang in animation, voicing the kids with the voices of kids (with occasional left-in pronunciation and dialogue flaws that add charm and character). He’s also the one who brought in Vince Guaraldi to score the group with his gentle, upbeat jazz sound that also came to define the strip when animated. And while the visual style is less than cinematic on the whole, he created in television’s “limited animation” style, a great series of shorts and a couple of very fine features.
I grew up with Peanuts in the paper everyday and have fond, fond memories of reading it with my mom as a small child before reading on my own as I got older. I loved the shows, I bought the books, and was well-invested in the work of Charles M. Schulz, and to this day I still deeply love it.
These days, the newspaper comics aren’t the same, meaning they are less kid-friendly and a dying breed. And since Schulz himself passed away in 2000, there just isn’t the same availability. I have been buying the collections of the comics that have been republished in recent years by Fantagraphics and read them with the kids and the kids have seen the t.v. shows. It’s not the same. But I decided that we’d rent A Boy Named Charlie Brown and see how it went down. I’d always remembered it fondly.
And it’s a good film. Truly it is. The story, adapted from numerous stories in the newspaper, but developed into a broader story arc is surprisingly successful. Charlie Brown is the ultimate loser, failing to fly a kite, giving up runs on every pitch in baseball, being demonstrated his multitude of flaws by the ever-ready Lucy. Until he makes it into a spelling bee, which he luckily is given words like “failure”, “unconfident”, and “stomach-ache”, all things with which he is all too familiar. He makes it from winning the classroom round, to the all-school round, to a national bee in a never-named but clearly New York City.
The film’s musical elements are far less Disney, with one main theme, “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”, a soft, sad-happy tune, along with one or two others and some additional Guaraldi jazz music. The film is sweet and funny and had the kids laughing out loud quite a bit.
The funniest part for me was when Clara said, “The guy who wrote Charlie Brown must have had a sad life.”
The funny thing is, though I remember going to see a couple of the later films in the theater, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977) and Boy Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!!) (1980), I don’t think I’d realized that A Boy Named Charlie Brown and Snoopy Come Home (1972) were theatrical releases as well. I mean, the film is as old as I am, and while that may be the case, it still cheered the whole Coffelt gang for a Friday night.