Like the early Peanuts holiday specials, the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown can sneak up on a viewer. Early on, it’s little more than an adaptation of a few unconnected Charles Schulz strips, intercut with musical interludes. Vince Guaraldi’s score—arranged by John Scott Trotter, and peppered with Rod McKuen songs—is more lavish than the music in the TV series, and the tone’s more sentimental than befits Peanuts. But then the movie develops a plot, having to do with Charlie Brown’s effort to prove he’s not useless by winning a spelling bee; and it develops a subplot too, with Linus loaning his security blanket to Charlie Brown and then going through withdrawal symptoms to rival a heroin addict. By the end, the whole of A Boy Named Charlie Brown become greater than the sum of its parts. Those musical interludes—including a psychedelic Star-Spangled Banner, an impressionistic take on Beethoven and sacred art, and a jazzy ice-skating/hockey montage—have an appealingly pointless quality, like mini-meditations on the Peanuts characters. The digressions set up the final point of the movie: that even when we fail, life, in all its myriad possibilities and wonders, goes on.
The Peanuts animation crew—led as always by Schulz, Bill Meléndez, and Lee Mendelson—tried to double-down on A Boy Named Charlie Brown’s poignancy with 1972’s overly schmaltzy Snoopy, Come Home! This time, the plot’s more paramount: Snoopy gets a letter from a sick little girl named Lila, his owner before Charlie Brown, and after Snoopy goes to visit her, he decides that Lila needs him more. Disney stalwarts Richard and Robert Sherman provide a decent score, including one absolutely gorgeous song, “It Changes,” about how much Charlie Brown’s going to miss having Snoopy in his life. The movie’s an effective tearjerker, bound together by fitfully funny, dialogue-free Snoopy/Woodstock slapstick. But even though it’s based on an actual Peanuts storyline, Snoopy, Come Home! frequently feels out-of-sync with Schulz’s sensibility, in that it tries a bit too hard. The most Peanuts-y element in the film is also the weirdest: the way the various characters fight for Snoopy’s attention, and feel hurt when he behaves too “independent.” Those who believe that Schulz snuck coded messages about his personal life into his work may want to take a second look at Snoopy, Come Home!, which came out the year the cartoonist got divorced. Rarely has a movie made for kids been so devastatingly honest about how relationships can sour over time.
Key features: None. (Those blockheads!)