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"I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown": If Christmas Specials Were Underwear …

by on December 8, 2009

It’s not hard to guess when I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown was made. It lacks the rampant creativity and outstanding imagination that made the earliest Charlie Brown ventures such successes, and it is also missing the obvious periodic quirks that marked the better specials of the 70s and 80s. In fact, I Want a Dog was the second-to-last Charlie Brown animated production ever. It was released in 2003—three years after Charles Schulz’s death—because Schulz’s will stipulated that no original Peanuts material be made after his death. And so this and a couple of other post-2000 shorts were all directly based on comic strips. I Want a Dog For Christmas is far from the worst Peanuts special ever produced—it has the trademark Peanuts heart and stays true to its characters—but the end product ultimately feels weak when compared to the strongest of the gang’s exploits.

The star of this special, interestingly, is Linus and Lucy’s younger brother, Rerun. I wanted to hate Rerun—the concept of introducing an infantile third Van Pelt to the cast sounds gimmicky to me, and names like “Cousin Oliver” and “Poochie” flashed through my head—but in fact Rerun is an appealing character. His dialogue is humorous without being forced or overly cute, and his voice actor—Jimmy Bennett—does a better job at recapturing the feel of the earlier Peanuts specials then any of the other voice actors featured here. Rerun also brings about a few of the most entertaining bits in the special, when he takes nerve-wracking rides on the back of his mother’s bicycle. These scenes are tame compared to, say, some of Snoopy’s more brutal dogfights, but are still well-made, with interesting backgrounds and some of the more humorous throwaway gags contained in this disc. (My personal favorite occurs when Rerun chants “Over hill, over Dale… poor Dale”.)

Still, Rerun has a fatal flaw that ultimately damages him and his material: he forces all the other characters to be his straight man. His mix of intelligence and simplicity and his skill with delivering punch-lines make him an entertaining character, but they also make him a spotlight hog. It certainly doesn’t help that even when Rerun isn’t onscreen the other characters still seem to lack the traits that once made them so appealing. There are no out-right bastardizations, but Snoopy and the rest seem uncharacteristically lackluster here. This may be because of the voice cast—I thought Ashley Rose Orr in particular had a difficult time with Lucy—but at least some of the blame has to be directed at the writers and directors, for not allowing for scenes that truly fit the characters.

Another big problem with I Want a Dog is its loose story-telling structure. Although Rerun’s wish for a dog—a thin enough plot as it is —is supposedly the over-arching plotline of the special, it’s really just made up of a bunch of completely unconnected vignettes, each based on separate comic strips. This jumpy story-telling style is more than just annoying, because it completely takes the viewer out of the scene and makes it hard to care about what’s happening on-screen. Finally, though the special does retain a bit of the Peanuts heart and sincerity, the main plot is astoundingly simple—not deceptively simple, like most of the Peanuts plots, but genuinely simplistic—so it isn’t very interesting. This could be forgiven if the plot opened up opportunities for comedy gold, but it doesn’t. The funniest bits involve either Rerun riding on the back of his mother’s bike, or his “harassment” of a girl in his kindergarten class, and neither of these scenes has anything to do with the main plot.

I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is funny enough to make it worth watching around Christmastime when it comes on television, but it doesn’t deserve the same amount of reverence and respect that, say, A Charlie Brown Christmas gets, and if this were the only feature on the disc, I would recommend skipping a purchase.

However, the inclusion of the second special on the disc, Happy New Years, Charlie Brown complicates things somewhat. First, because this is the first time it’s ever been released on DVD (though it is likely to appear when the Peanuts 1980s Collections roll around) and second, because it’s a good special, more linear, character-based, and funnier than a lot of the Peanuts productions of the 80s. The plot has Charlie Brown struggling to write an essay on War and Peace over Christmas vacation while Peppermint Patty prepares a New Years party that she fervently expects him to attend. This special includes two musical sequences, the first of which is the highlight of the entire DVD: an impromptu dance between Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty that has some of the funniest and smoothest animation I’ve seen in a Peanuts production. The humor here is mostly character-based: Peppermint Patty’s sheer enthusiasm coupled with Charlie Brown’s legendary wishy-washiness is a pairing that continues to be enduring. The other characters all get good scenes as well, including Rerun, who appears blowing up square balloons halfway into the feature.

Happy New Year Charlie Brown, despite being created well after Peanuts was in its prime, is a worthwhile short. It feels looser, more imaginative and creative, than I Want a Dog. It looks better, too; the character expressions are more varied. Outshining the visuals, however, is the soundtrack. Though it’s not the traditional Peanuts theme, it’s catchy and fun, and I’ve been humming both the in-show theme and the two musical numbers for the past week.

The only extra feature on the disc is a documentary on the creation of Rerun. It’s interesting, kind of, but Peanuts fans won’t learn anything they don’t already know.

So, should you buy this DVD? Both of these specials come on television around Christmas (Happy New Year returned to TV just last year); I Want a Dog has already been released on DVD, and Happy New Year is going to show up, albeit on a more expensive set, sooner or later. The remastering process doesn’t really do much of note for Peanuts. Those just looking for a fun, reasonably priced holiday DVD are the ideal buyers here.

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