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Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Most fans of Charles Schulz' "Peanuts" no doubt have a special place in their hearts for those animated specials that have been popping up on TV off and on for over forty years.  If it's been awhile since you watched one, you can relive old memories with CHARLIE BROWN'S CHRISTMAS TALES, a good example of the best and worst of the lot. 

First up on this DVD is the title piece from 2002, which is a series of Christmas vignettes loosely linked by the seasonal theme, each showcasing a particular character.  There's no main plot linking them all together, but each mini-story is charming and engaging on its own. 

The episodes play like those "Peanuts" comics that followed a single story thread for several strips, and watching it is like reading an animated version of one of Schulz' paperback compilations.  In fact, I have a feeling these were actually taken right from the comics.  The setups and punchlines come one after another just as though we're paging through one of those comics collections, and they're deftly delivered like a stand-up comedian on a roll.

Our favorite characters get the spotlight in turn, beginning with Snoopy, who's taken up being an accordion-playing street corner Santa.  An example of the classic set-up and punchline style on display here: Lucy and Linus walk by Snoopy-Santa as he squeezes out a tune, there's a pause, and then Lucy remarks, "I don't know, me, 'Oh Susanna' just doesn't sound very Christmassy."  (In a nod to past glories, Snoopy then switches to the theme song from "A Charlie Brown Christmas.")

Obsessive-compulsive Linus spends his segment agonizing over how to address Santa in his letter and dealing with his romantic feelings for a mysterious girl in his class who changes her name every day.  Charlie Brown's little sister Sally, one of my favorite characters, is concerned with trying to get her "sweet Baboo" Linus to notice her.  She also must deal with her embarrassment over mistakenly thinking "Santa" Claus is "Samantha" Claus and her quest to obtain a Christmas tree by willing one to fall down rather than having to chop it down.

Lucy resolves to be nicer than ever, which naturally makes her more crabby than before.  We see her wooing the reluctant Schroeder and trying to convince Linus that the Bible dictates he give her a Christmas present.  Charlie Brown, as always, simply reacts to the various indignities and absurdities that are thrust upon him daily.

Vince Guaraldi's irresistible and instantly-recognizable music is nicely arranged and performed by David Benoit, and the voice work is good.  "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales" is a briskly-paced series of brightly funny gags that are smartly drawn and animated, breathing new life into these long-running characters.

The second feature on the disc, "Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown?", came out around the tail end of the vintage Charlie Brown specials and isn't nearly as memorable as the earlier ones.  It seems as though writer Charles Schulz' heart wasn't really in this one, which had the potential to be one of the series most heartfelt stories.

This time Linus and Lucy are moving away due to their father's job relocation, and Charlie Brown faces the loss of his two best friends.  Such an event is important in a kid's life, and we expect something more substantial than this episodic, disjointed narrative.  With Linus and Lucy gone, the story veers into a lengthy and rather unspecial subplot about Peppermint Pattie's dogged attempts to get Charlie Brown to ask her for a date.  An abrupt wrap-up follows this uninteresting detour from the main story, which isn't developed very well at all.

Besides an awful musical score (not by Vince Guaraldi), subpar vocal talent, and some iffy character design, "Goodbye" commits a cardinal sin--showing adult characters onscreen.  Watching this when it first aired back in 1983, I remember thinking how jarring it was when the moving men were shown loading the Van Pelts' belongings into a van.  "Peanuts" has always been a kids-only world, where the closest thing to a grownup was the comically distorted "voice" of Charlie Brown's nagging teacher.  So, to casually introduce some anonymous adult characters from out of the blue is, to me, a bothersome misstep.

The Warner Brothers DVD is in standard TV format and Dolby Digital sound with English and French subtitles.  Also included are trailers for other Peanuts DVDs. 

Now that I think of it, the disappointing "Is This Goodbye, Charlie Brown?" is probably the reason I finally quit watching these "Peanuts" specials altogether.  So it's nice to see that, with "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales", the old magic was restored.  Of course, all of this nitpicking comes from the point of view of a grownup, and, despite my comically distorted gripes, kids will probably manage to enjoy both of these stories just fine.

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