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The Legacy of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

Good grief.
By  · Published on December 20th, 2018

It’s December, and you know what that means: At least one mandated family viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. The special has been running since the 1960s and was a major contributor to the presence of the Peanuts comic strip and the Snoopy character in pop culture.

The special has a particularly interesting history. Producer Lee Mendelson proposed the idea for a Peanuts documentary to comic strip author Charles Schulz, but nobody else was interested in the idea until Coca-Cola called up looking for a Christmas special for advertising. Mendelson, hoping that this could lead to a future for his doc, agreed on the spot, and he and Schulz put together the outline for the piece in a day.

The production was similarly haphazard; Schulz and Mendelson were given just six months to make a half-hour animated special. That’s a lot of frames to get done in a limited time, and it’s no surprise that the aesthetic of the special reflects many principles of limited animation, featuring lots of repeated cycling and little Hanna Barbara-style tricks like animating heads and hands moving separately from bodies, separated by clothing. Bill Melendez Productions did the animation, which takes advantage of Schulz’s flat comic strip style to further keep it nice and tight, but he still ended up going $20,000 over budget.

A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed 10 days before its premiere and everyone thought it would flop. Melendez wasn’t satisfied with the quality of animation, and when Mendelson brought it to the network execs, they had a slew of complaints about everything from the pacing to the music. But A Charlie Brown Christmas resonated with viewers and won an Emmy the next year for Outstanding Children’s Program. Much like Star Wars would do 12 years later, A Charlie Brown Christmas propelled its franchise and property straight to the top, and nowadays you can’t walk into a retail outfit after Thanksgiving without seeing Snoopy with a Santa hat printed on something.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is now one of the definitive American Christmas TV specials, along with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman (the latter of which was also animated by Melendez). It opened the door for more Peanuts animated specials, like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. These cartoons, with their simple style, philosophical conundrums, and quirky characters, brought Peanuts a new audience beyond the funny pages. That audience’s support for the brand, in turn, helped it grow into the titanic juggernaut it is today, even after Schulz’s death in 2000. Peanuts characters move merchandise, there’s been an on-ice show and a Broadway musical, and there’s the balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade every year.

So it’s no wonder that big companies are trying to put Charlie Brown back on our screens. After all, if we like Snoopy, maybe we’ll buy more Snoopy-print stuff. Apple recently closed a deal with DHX Media to produce new media featuring the Peanuts gang, as they slowly but silently close the distance with all the other children’s media giants. The last time we saw Charlie Brown on screen was three years ago, with 2015’s The Peanuts Movie. The theatrical feature did solidly, updating the animation style to something more modern, and I won’t deny that it looks damn good while still preserving the strip’s distinct look. But at the same time, The Peanuts Movie was missing a bit of that magic spark that made Charlie Brown so relatable and human.

For its part, The Peanuts Movie has all the surface qualities of Peanuts. There’s ice skating, baseball, the whole football thing, and the Little Red-Haired Girl. But the film is also missing a vital piece: Charlie Brown’s romantic idealism that is constantly shattered by an uncaring world is a huge part of what defines the bittersweet melancholy that suffuses Peanuts. He never gives up hope, which is where the Meghan Trainor song supposedly should come in, but he’s not really supposed to win either. After all, if he finally kicks the football, we wouldn’t have a reason to keep watching.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what the demographic is for these characters these days. There’s an assumption that because these characters are kids with old-fashioned ’50s names and enormous heads, the stories must be for children. But kids don’t like stuff from the ’50s. They like Fortnite and PewDiePie.

As a brand, Peanuts has been around for so long that and has dissolved so thoroughly into our collective consciousnesses that I think we often forget that the original comic strip was actually really existential and heady. Part of the humor derived from these tiny matryoshka doll children talking about stuff like maintaining hope in the face of an uncaring world. In the December 1997 issue of The Comics Journal, cartoonist Tom Batiuk, creator of Funky Winkerbean, wrote of Peanuts:

“Just beneath the cheerful surface were vulnerabilities and anxieties that we all experienced, but were reluctant to acknowledge. By sharing those feelings with us, Schulz showed us a vital aspect of our common humanity, which is, it seems to me, the ultimate goal of great art.”

Charles Schulz was a man who understood the human condition, and his magnum opus reflected that, as evidenced by its near-universal appeal in its heyday. Ironically, the very consumerism that he spoke out against in A Charlie Brown Christmas has diluted his work into easily digestible skits that repeat the same beats without trying to engage with more serious themes. If Apple intends to bring the Peanuts gang back into the public consciousness, they need to understand that there’s more to this storied franchise than a dog who thinks he’s a World War I flying ace.

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Hans Qu is an animator with Strong Opinions about animation. Along with said opinions, his art and animation can be found on his Bird App account: @NerdyChineseBoy