"Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown" - And So Is This New DVD Movie
I freely admit that jaundiced skepticism was my initial reaction to the announcement of Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, the first new Peanuts animated special in 5 years and the first with no direct involvement by the famed strip’s creator Charles Schulz. I’ll even admit that the phrase “cash grab” flew through my head briefly after reading the press materials. However, the movie itself makes me more than happy to eat my words. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown is a delight from start to finish that wonderfully captures the spirit and the heart of the best of the Peanuts animated specials.
The core story of Happiness is a Warm Blanket is formed from several different narratives from the comic strip, most of which were done in the 1960’s. Despite their age, the movie never feels dated, just as the strips from that era are still fresh and enjoyable to modern audiences. Linus is threatened with the loss of his ever-present security blanket when Lucy informs him that their grandmother is coming to visit in a week, determined to break her grandson of his emotional crutch. Like many other Peanuts specials, Happiness is a Warm Blanket‘s foundation in the strips leads to a meandering, episodic sense of pacing. However, Happiness is a Warm Blanket doesn’t have the too-straight translation of four-panel gag strip timing that hobbled many of the lesser Schulz/Melendez/Mendelson productions. Even though the overwhelming majority of the dialogue is taken straight from the comic strips, the movie never forgets that comedic timing in a movie is different from comedic timing on the printed page and ensures that all the gags are timed for the medium of the moving image. I will credit this to the excellent screenplay by Stephan Pastis (no stranger to newspaper strips as the creator of Pearls Before Swine), the talented voice cast and direction by Jamie Simone, and the sensitive and careful direction by Andy Beall and Frank Molieri. Special notice must be paid to the excellent performances of Austin Lux and Grace Rolek, who quite successfully carry much of the movie as Linus and Lucy, respectively. Despite the fact that I remembered many of the strips that were sourced for this movie (which even includes Sparky’s very first Peanuts strip), many of the gags still elicited substantial laughs when played out on-screen. It’s one thing to laugh at a new joke, but it takes real skill to get you to laugh at a joke you already know the punch line to.
However, the very best Peanuts specials are about something more than their surface story, and happily, the same can be said for Happiness is a Warm Blanket. This becomes clear right from the opening shot of the movie, as Woodstock flutters over a ravaged landscape to reveal Linus digging up half the neighborhood to find the spot where Lucy buried his blanket. It’s a scene that has surprising emotional impact and that sticks with you long after it’s over, much like many scenes of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It may sound strange (and probably more pretentious than I intend), but Happiness is a Warm Blanket feels like a more kid-friendly, less heavy-handed take on the themes presented in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, as it spotlights the various coping mechanisms and “pipe dreams” of the individual Peanuts characters. Like many other Peanuts specials, Happiness is a Warm Blanket digresses repeatedly from its central story to showcase other characters. These diversions often come off as little more than humorous business to pad out the running time at first. However, it becomes clear over time that these incidents were selected with purpose to highlight the individual obsessions of the cast as a direct contrast with Linus’ need for his beloved blanket. It’s a subtle effect that builds up over time, but one which yields surprising and subtle resonance as the film unfolds. I feared that the spell was about to be broken near the end by a speech that lampshaded the theme, but just when I began to wonder why the movie had such a drastic loss of faith in itself at the last minute, the moment was perfectly punctured with a gag that was hiding in plain sight all along (and delivers one of the biggest laughs of the movie). Happiness is a Warm Blanket may not challenge A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for depth of meaning, but as I’ve mentioned before that’s a standard that’s impossible for few if any animated kids specials to live up to. As it is, Happiness is a Warm Blanket is still surprisingly substantial, which sets it apart from almost all of its competition and clearly shows that the producers all understand why the best of the strip and the animated specials have endured for decades.
The look and feel of the cartoon also perfectly matches those Peanuts classics, with character models that are spot-on from Schulz’s work on the strip and the same watercolor tones to the backgrounds. The jazz soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi is also a permanent fixture of Peanuts TV specials, and those sensibilities are marvelously duplicated by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh. His score for this film manages to echo Guaraldi (especially his 70’s soundtracks that swapped the piano for an electric organ) without sounding like a slavish imitation; it’s the best compliment I can offer that it sounds like the kind of thing Guaraldi would have composed for this special if he were still alive today. In total, Happiness is a Warm Blanket is a wonderfully hand-made piece of work that is given an excellent presentation on DVD. The anamorphic widescreen presentation is flawless, and mated to a soundtrack that’s technically a 5.1 Dolby Digital but which doesn’t really push any technical boundaries. Extras include a deleted scene in animatic form (introduced by Andy Beall) and a slate of 3 behind-the-scenes featurettes on writing the script, casting the movie, and animating it. I suppose it’s another compliment to the film that I wished all these extras were longer and more substantial (although it’s also a marginal criticism that the DVD is so short, considering it’s just a 45-minute special plus these short extras). After watching the movie, it was heartening to hear the crew echoing many of the sentiments I just expressed above and pointing out many of the things I had noticed in the film. Despite its casual, almost meandering feeling, it seems that very little in this movie was not carefully thought through.
I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by a direct-to-video movie since Cinderella III. There are none as fervent as the converted, and since the movie so thoroughly extinguished my jaded skepticism on its own merits, I’m more than happy to sing the praises of Happiness is a Warm Blanket to anyone with even a passing affection for Schulz’s work. In principle, I would still have preferred something new and untried rather than a revival of a tried-and-true franchise. I want to see the next Peanuts just as I want to see the next Batman or Spider-Man in my superhero films. However, it’s difficult or impossible to stick to principle when confronted with something as patently delightful as Happiness is a Warm Blanket, which neatly reminds me what made me fall in love with Peanuts in the first place.