Sunday, April 17, 2011

Extreme Makeover: Charlie Brown Edition!

(All images courtesy Google Images.)
ALMOST five years after the last new Peanuts cartoon (He's a Bully, Charlie Brown) was broadcast on ABC in 2006, the latest one (number 45) made its bow on March 29: Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown (for now, only available on DVD, Blu-ray and "On Demand"). It's the first special to not involve long-time producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, who passed away in 2008. An all-new production team, led by co-directors Andy Beall (formerly of Pixar) and Frank Molieri (an animator who has worked on projects as diverse as Space Jam and The Simpsons Movie), continues the tradition of adapting select Peanuts comic strips into a new story, which has been the standard practice since the death of creator Charles Schulz in 2000. Unlike most recent specials, the producers of the 46-minute movie give viewers a unique trip to yesteryear that could become the norm for future Peanuts cartoons, if it's a success.

HiaWBCB focuses on the efforts of Linus to hold onto his security blanket and maintain his sanity at all costs, his primary obstacles being Snoopy, Lucy, the lovestruck Sally and his "blanket-hating" grandma. Meanwhile, life goes on around him, as Charlie Brown struggles to fly a kite, Lucy competes with Beethoven for the affections of Schroeder, and Pig Pen gets down and dirty.

As written by Stephan Pastis (creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine) and Craig Schulz (son of Charles), the script for HiaWBCB is adapted from a few blanket-themed stories that ran for weeks as daily Peanuts strips in the early 1960s; combined with it are an assortment of setups or gags that range from the first strip in 1950 through those of the 1970s. As a result, the plot is episodic and doesn't always flow smoothly. Given that the desire is to preserve Schulz's words (and the comic timing of the strip) as much as possible without provoking cries of blasphemy from serious fans, Pastis and the younger Schulz can only do so much. Despite the restrictions, they still manage to create a decent narrative that's reasonably faithful to the original source material.

Under the mandate of director Beall, the cartoon was made "the old-fashioned way" (with miminal use of computers), and that's the key to its charm. Not only is the actual animation done by hand (the bulk of the work started in the US before getting finished by animators in South Korea), the backgrounds are paintings in watercolor like they were for the old shows. Even the design of the characters are inspired by the earliest Melendez specials; in fact, the story's setting is the mid-1960s. (Linus watches a boxy TV set with an antenna on top, Lucy plays a game of checkers, and long-forgotten characters like Shermy, Patty and Violet are prevalent, with no Peppermint Patty, Marcie or Rerun anywhere at all.) At times, it's astounding how close the new animation resembles that of the vintage shows, right down to inconsistencies in the drawings and continuity errors. (Actually, I think the "errors" were done in tribute to Melendez!) At the same time, one is reminded they are watching something made in the 21st Century, as illustrated by the widescreen picture (1.78:1) and the use of odd angles and different points of view in framing shots (often resembling pop art) that deviates from what Melendez did greatly.

The voice actors are uniformally excellent, with the standouts being Austin Lux (Linus), Trenton Rogers (Charlie Brown and Schroeder), director Beall (Snoopy) and especially Shane Baumel as the scene-stealing Pig Pen (though this comes through sight gags more than verbal humor).

Some have cited the music by Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) to be the weakest part of the whole presentation, but this is an unwarranted charge. In HiaWBCB, the emphasis is placed more on the story, and with the classic compositions of the legendary Vince Guaraldi overshadowing every Peanuts cartoon made after his death in 1976, Mothersbaugh is wise to keep his score (which includes some cues by Guaraldi) and arrangements close to those of the older shows. If he is playing it safe, his efforts here are better than the lifeless stuff Ed Bogas and David Benoit made or arranged for specials of previous years.

While I got the Warner BD+DVD+Digital Copy combo (an "exclusive" at Walmart, but obtainable elsewhere), the DVD version will be good enough for most people. The picture is bright, lush and sharp, the visible grain on the image the result of a filter which brings an agreeable "film" look to it. The audio is strong and clear, but because it is a newer cartoon (not in a mono mix like the older specials), be ready to crank up the volume to appreciate all the nuances of the English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Special features (not counting trailers) consist of three short but informative featurettes on the making of the movie and one deleted scene.

Those intimate with the Peanuts cartoons will notice familiar bits of business in HiaWBCB, and that's because some of it appeared in earlier productions, most notably on The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. Happily, with the injection of fresh talent brought to this latest special, new life and vitality has been brought to old stories and gags, regardless of how many times we've encountered them and where (in print or on video). Most importantly, by reintroducing the degree of melancholia Schulz gave the strip back in the 1960s (which Melendez initially embraced), the producers made a cartoon that's more bold for assuming this tone than all the specials made in the last 10 years combined, and it delivers more than a few belly laughs in the process. (Also look out for some surprise cameos and in-jokes!)

However, for those accustomed to the "kid friendly" shows that began airing during the 1980s, this change is foreign to them. A few have even accused Pastis of channeling the dark elements of his Pearls comic strip into the screenplay, but anyone who knows of Pastis's background knows he's a fan of Peanuts, so there's no way he's going to mess around with what Schulz did for almost 50 years. At its creative peak, Peanuts was a strip for adults, discovered later by children, and the story reflects this accurately. So it goes this is the first Peanuts special geared more to older fans, but it can be watched by children, too (with Mom and/or Dad, preferably).

In summary, HiaWBCB is one of the best animated adaptations of Peanuts ever made since the end of the 1960s, and this statement comes from a lifelong Peanuts fan of 40+ years who's seen 'em all. Done as much in tribute to Bill Melendez as it is to Charles Schulz, it's a delightful, contemplative throwback to a time when things appeared to be simpler, and the words "computer" and "animation" had yet to be uttered in the same breath.

Brother Fang sez: "Don't you DARE call this a 'reboot', you blockhead! Do I recommend you buy or rent it? Good grief, yes!"

Keeping it trivial....

Brother Fang, Shaolin Temple.

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