Happiness is Peanuts

The beloved characters of Minnesotan Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip will be heading back to the theater on November 6. Even with their CGI makeover, the question remains of whether the gang is still relevant in today’s climate of animated films. Peanuts never had the most energetic or vibrant of cartoon characters, remaining quite low-key. Can they compete? If my little girl watching and rewatching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is any indication, I think it’s safe to say that they are timeless.

The main characters of Peanuts: Franklin, Woodstock, Lucy van Pelt, Snoopy, Linus van Pelt, Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty and Sally Brown

Peanuts © 2005, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

But what makes Schulz’s creations remain such a staple of the holiday season to warrant repeat viewings every year? There’s just something so warm and innocent to those animated specials. There’s an intelligence in the writing, but also the simple nature of children just being children. It’s soothing, witty, and wildly imaginative all at once.

Take the opening to A Charlie Brown Christmas as an example. The film fading in on a snowy day at the iced-over pond, the children skate around as a somber piano leads into a choir of “Christmas Time Is Here.” I hear the first few notes of that song and I’m already in the mood to snuggle up with a blanket and hot cocoa. Charlie Brown and Linus walk outside and perch themselves on a small brick wall to chat; ever the conflicted kid, Charlie Brown talks to Linus about how he can’t figure out why he’s not happy around Christmas time. Linus finds his friend’s assessment of the holiday atypical—only he could turn a joyous holiday into a depressing time for questioning (“Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Brownest”). They then make their way to the pond as the choir continues to sing. While at the pond, Snoopy joins in the skating by forming a human chain. The momentum soon results in him grabbing both Charlie Brown and Linus, swinging them across the ice until Charlie Brown is sent slamming into a tree. Snoopy’s chaos at the pond isn’t built up with too many sound effects or a shift in music as “Christmas Time Is Here” continues to play over the scene.

Promotional image for A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the Christmas tree

There’s a cozy, contemplative nature to it all with the way Charlie Brown’s perplexing thoughts don’t dampen the overall atmosphere. The kids still play, the snow still falls, and the choir still sings. There’s a brilliant juxtaposition throughout this film that would lay the groundwork for how Peanuts would be defined in animation forever. Sticking close to the feel of the comic strips, the Peanuts children feel realized as flawed characters who don’t quite have everything work out the way they want. In Charlie Brown’s mission to find the true meaning of Christmas, he hopes to evoke his happiness through the direction of a Christmas play, but his lack of leadership turns the rehearsal into a mess of kids desiring more to goof off than act. He tries to gain their trust by purchasing a Christmas tree but ends up bringing back the smallest and most pathetic tree there is. It’s only after all of this that Charlie Brow finds some warranted joy, when his friends dress up the little tree with love.

There’s a daring nature to how Schulz approached the subject of Christmas for such a special—questioning its commercialism and the happiness it supposedly generates. The classic moment when Charlie Brown asks in frustration what Christmas is all about prompts Linus to quote a reading from the Bible. Some younger viewers may believe this scene was easy enough to stage for television in the 1960s, but it was actually quite controversial even for its time. Hardly any Christmas special of that decade made reference to religion, and the few that did weren’t so direct. Producer Bill Melendez was initially against this scene, but Schulz remained firm in his stance. He didn’t want his Christmas special to shy away from religion because it was personal to himself and his childhood. To deny its part in his vision of a Peanuts Christmas would go against the world he wanted to create.

But faith was also addressed in different ways as with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The classic Halloween special finds Linus celebrating the holiday by believing in a being known as the Great Pumpkin. He spends Halloween night at a pumpkin patch, pushing away the act of trick-or-treating for what he believes will be the true reason for the season. Nobody believes him, but Linus holds out for the Great Pumpkin, praising his spirit and writing him letters. “If you don’t exist, don’t tell me,” he writes. “I don’t want to know.” Even after spending all night in the pumpkin patch without a trace of the Halloween spirit, Linus remains stubbornly committed to his belief that the Great Pumpkin exists. He has no believers or followers by the end of the special, including Sally, who initially believed him out of love only to explode in anger when the Great Pumpkin never shows. It’s all up to Linus to make sure the Great Pumpkin receives the attention and respect Linus believes he deserves. The special also features one of the most telling lines of all Peanuts specials, and one of my favorite: “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people—religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

Still from It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown showing Lucy and Linus waiting in the pumpkin patch

Lucy and Linus await the Great Pumpkin. Peanuts © 2005, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

Peanuts isn’t all deep examinations, though. The simple pleasures of being a kid are well realized and charming. A group of kids stick their tongues out to catch snowflakes; Lucy refuses to participate, stating that she only eats January snowflakes. It’s a cute line, but also one you could see being said by a kid. In fact, it was said by a kid—among several key factors that remained consistent with the Peanuts animation style over the years, a crucial one was a voice cast consisting of child actors. This helped to make the world of Peanuts feel more real in that the kids actually sound like kids rather than adults attempting to be kids. There are no adults seen in these specials, and the ones that are heard exist in the form of trombone noises. This means that every character onscreen is someone a kid watching the films has a good chance of relating to—if I had to choose one element that today’s kids would relate toward most about Peanuts, it is without question the characters. Every kid has known someone as commanding as Lucy or as devoted a follower as Marcie.

And then there is the imaginative element, mostly brought forth by Snoopy and his dialogue-free antics. In his mind, Snoopy is a World War I flying ace with his doghouse as an aircraft that he hopes will bring down the Red Baron. He imagines soaring into the sky, firing machine guns and being hit by the Red Baron, which sends his craft spiraling down in flames. As the specials and movies continued, Snoopy’s imagination and antics became far more trippy, with colorful visions. The Charlie Brown theatrical movies featured many of these moments, which slowed down the story to offer some experimental visuals and changes in location. Whereas the kids of Peanuts remained grounded in reality, Snoopy allowed the animation to run wild with no dialogue to hold it back.

Given that the budget for many of the early specials was very tight and production was on a quick turnaround, the animation itself has a homespun quality to it. There are some errors here and there as well as some off-model moments and issues with color. But it is those flaws that gave the animation life. You can sense there was a small group of artists putting their all into those specials as opposed to a studio of dozens. The results of the Christmas special were amazing considering that they went over budget and had very little time in the production schedule, finishing all animation in as quickly as four months.

I find myself coming back to Peanuts time and time again and not just because my daughter will ask to see It’s the Great Pumpkin over and over. In a world where animation for kids has grown louder, slicker, and high on theatrics, Peanuts is a refreshing breath of fresh air. I sit back and relax with my warm beverage as the jazz soundtrack sets the tone for an easygoing bit of animated humor. It’s never made me laugh out loud, but it always makes me smile with its endless charms of great characters, welcoming atmosphere, and introspective passages of wit.

Poster for The Peanuts Movie, 2015

Whether or not the new Peanuts movie will be any good remains to be seen. Good or bad, it will never take away that wonderful feeling that comes from watching the timeless classics. But here’s hoping this CGI rendering of the Peanuts gang will keep the franchise and its animation traits alive and kicking into the future—blankets in hand and barons in crosshairs.

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