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"Peanuts 1960’s Collection:" Respect for the Classics…and the Other Specials, Too

by on July 6, 2009

Groovy, manAs part of their commemoration of the Woodstock music festival (or shameless commercial exploitation of it, depending on who you ask), Warner Home Video brings us the Peanuts 1960’s Collection, packaging the first six Charlie Brown TV specials on two DVDs and adding a short documentary about jazz composer and performer Vince Guaraldi to sweeten the deal. The end result is a satisfying enough package, even if the specials themselves are rather uneven and the best ones have already been released as excellent Peanuts Deluxe Edition DVDs. These were the first shows that brought Charles M. Schulz’s famous newspaper strip creations to animation, and odds are good that this set will be the only way to get some of the lesser known TV specials in remastered editions.

A Charlie Brown Christmas opens the set and sets a high-water mark none of the remaining specials can hope to match. If my thoughts on it have changed from when I declared it “the finest Christmas cartoon of all time,” it is only to say that I may have understated its excellence, and that the declaration about the bare-bones home video release was merely an attempt to make lemonade out of the lemon of a DVD that Paramount offered at the time.

Charlie Brown’s All-Stars follows, presenting Charlie Brown with a dilemma: local shopowner Mr. Hennesey offers uniforms and league membership to Charlie Brown’s perpetually losing baseball team, but only if he is willing to ditch the girls and the dog on his team. While I doubt Charles Schulz was trying to tell a parable for the civil rights era, this special does turn out to make some quietly profound statements about the costs and rewards of friendship. The closing image of Charlie Brown and Linus standing in the rain on the pitcher’s mound is also unexpectedly touching. If this series has a serious flaw, it is that it never really escapes from the four-panel gag strip comic timing to truly exploit the narrative tempos that television animation provided.

The contrast in tempo is easy to see when comparing All-Stars with It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the last special on disc 1. This is arguably the second-best of the Charlie Brown television specials, evidenced by its continuing presence on television once a year after more than 40 years. Linus engages in his annual pilgrimage on Halloween night to wait for the Great Pumpkin, with Sally sacrificing her night of trick-or-treat to wait with him. Meanwhile, Charlie Brown ends up getting quite the raw deal on Halloween night, while Snoopy plays at being a World War I flying ace for the evening. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas and the best of the comic strips, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has much more to say than what appears on the surface. Indeed, this is one of the more bittersweet Peanuts specials, with the moody sense of melancholy that infuses Snoopy’s trek across desolate World War I landscapes and the somewhat disturbing hint that Linus’ faith in the Great Pumpkin is probably never going to be rewarded. As an adult, it’s hard not to view Linus and his unwavering faith in the Great Pumpkin as a metaphor for a deeper truth, but what message Schulz embedded there, if any, is open to debate. Linus could be a standard for keeping Faith in a sea of skepticism, a warning parable against idolatry, or an object lesson in what happens if one ignores the warning in Matthew 4:5-7 against testing the Lord, but any evidence that supports one of these theories is greatly tempered by the evidence for the others.

Contrary to what the packaging indicates, You’re in Love, Charlie Brown opens disc 2 rather than finishing disc 1. On the penultimate day of school, Charlie Brown attempts to work up the nerve to say something to the Little Red Haired Girl he likes, at great personal cost to himself. Any man who’s ever felt insecure about approaching the object of his affection will recognize (and/or cringe) at Charlie Brown’s convoluted schemes, but the topic of romance and unrequited love would be addressed with far more poignancy and effectiveness in Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown about ten years later. You’re in Love, Charlie Brown is entertaining, but lacks the same depth that can be found in the best Peanuts specials. It also suffers a bit from the four-panel gag timing as All-Stars and the remaining two specials on this set.

He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown is perhaps the most unsatisfying of all the shorts on this set. After Snoopy misbehaves one too many times, Charlie Brown sends him off to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm for an obedience refresher … or so he thinks. While the best Peanuts specials possess much deeper underpinnings beneath the surface, this is just a special about a misbehaving dog, no more and no less. Furthermore, there is absolutely no progress or growth for anybody involved, and Snoopy comes off as a particularly selfish, unsympathetic character. It doesn’t help that this special also shamelessly recycles most of the “Red Baron” sequence from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to pad the running time. Not their best effort.

The last special on disc 2 is It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, which also ditches any pretenses at deeper meanings in favor of summer camp hijinks between Charlie Brown and the boys on one side and Peppermint Patty and Lucy on the girls’ side. While this special is much more entertaining than the previous one, both are ultimately lightweight specials that are more schtick than substance—the video clip to the left taken from this special is fairly typical of the material found here, and emblematic of its lack of depth.

Three specials have been previously released by Warner Home Video on earlier Peanuts Remastered Deluxe Edition DVDs: A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and You’re in Love, Charlie Brown (the last on the Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown Deluxe DVD). The first two are identical to the earlier releases, and the last seems to have gotten the remastering treatment with a notable improvement in video quality (comparison stills can be seen by clicking here and here). The other specials also seem to have been given the same excellent digital remastering, and the original mono soundtracks for all the specials are clear and sharp. None of the extras from earlier deluxe edition DVDs are included in this package, such as the documentaries on the making of the Christmas and Halloween specials, but this set gets a new documentary on Vince Guaraldi titled “The Maestro of Menlo Park” that clocks in at just over 35 minutes. It’s a decent documentary, but not terribly deep and doesn’t really hold together as much more than several people remembering Guaraldi. Admittedly, that has no small added value when these people include Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson and a panoply of excellent jazz musicians, but the documentary still feels rather lightweight. Disappointingly, the menu screens are anamorphic, but the documentary is not even though it was clearly filmed in widescreen—another entry in the long list of Warner Home Video DVD releases with inconsistent widescreen presentations. Both discs are kept in a single-width snapper case to save room, with a very sturdy (if redundant) cardboard sleeve housing the whole thing.

It turns out that the duplicated material on the Peanuts 1960’s Collection isn’t as much of a detriment to this set as I thought it would be at first. Considering the amount of newly released and newly remastered material on this disc, the serious Peanuts fan or animation historian can easily justify re-purchasing what little material they already own. This is probably also going to be the set of choice for casual fans who haven’t already purchased the remastered Christmas or Halloween DVDs, and don’t care about the bonuses on those single-disc releases-the price of the set is like getting two specials for the price of one, with an extra four more to boot. However, the more casual fan that does own those single-disc DVDs may be better off skipping this release. The other material is interesting from a historical standpoint, but it’s also fairly clear why those other specials don’t get the regular air time on television.

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