(A review in which I run completely off the rails. You’ve been warned.)
Last night, found myself in a family crowd containing three young children at a brother-in-law’s house. So we decided to go see the Peanuts Movie.
The creators – a couple of Charles Schultz’s kids, by the look of it – wisely went to the well: the movie featured plenty of Snoopy and the Red Baron, Charlie Brown trying to fly a kite and play baseball, school, and the Little Red-Headed Girl. Where it departs from canon is telling: there’s a sweet as opposed to bittersweet ending, where Charlie Brown gets to unambiguously succeed.
The kids loved it – it is a sweet movie. I liked most of the Red Baron stuff – as a kid, when I saw it for the first time on TV in the 60’s, I don’t think I’d ever laughed harder. Some of the Snoopy-in-love stuff seemed a bit shoe-horned into the story, but it was OK. The not-so-subtle mockery of school that occasionally peeked through in the strips was all but absent – too bad.
On a technical level, it was pretty movie to see, but the conflict arising by trying to preserve the simple pencil-drawing of the characters while sticking them into a lush CGI landscape wasn’t really resolved satisfactorily. Weird little bits like what to do with the little curl of hair on the back of Charlie Brown’s head didn’t work, and were distracting. All in all, the old TV movies captured the mood better, sticking with artwork that would have easily worked as comic strips.
Sadly, the soundtrack used only a few brief snippets of Vince Guaraldi’s wonderful music written for the the early TV movies. The story goes that the producer of the first TV special was looking for someone to do the score, and heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio, and the rest is history. Any excuse to use Guaraldi’s Peanuts music is a good one, so I feel a little cheated.
I wonder if people remember how sadistically cruel the strip and even the TV movies are? Here for example is the first strip, from 1950:
Hate him, a smiling little kid. No reason. Over time, it is established that Charlie Brown is incompetent and depressed – what could be more fun and funny than relentlessly mocking and excluding such a kid? At least, that seems to be the seed of the strip’s success.
I’m not a comics expert by any stretch, but I have long noticed the difference in tone between popular strips and cartoons from the 50’s and earlier and those of the 70’s and later, with a weird transition period between. In early Warner Brothers cartoons, for example, Bugs needs no reason to torment and humiliate Elmer Fudd, who had not yet become the murderous yet infantile character he later became in the 60s. Nope, Elmer could just be trying to camp or enjoy nature somehow, and Bugs was free to go at ’em. He needed no more justification than Lucy and the Peanuts kids need to hate Charlie Brown.
By the 60’s at some point, Elmer Fudd was typically trying to ‘kill the wabbit’, so that Bug’s torment of him was fully justified – a sort of Greedo shot first foreshadowing. Fudd was just getting his richly-deserved comeuppance. Similarly, from an emotional perspective at least, the sadistic treatment of Charlie Brown got toned down – he did have some friends, and his intransigent enemy Lucy was portrayed more as a kid with her own problems. Kids didn’t say they hated him as much. Even the name calling got toned down a bit. He’s still a blockhead from time to time – still pretty cruel – but that’s about it. But most important, the kids tormenting him, at least in the shows I saw, never got a commensurate comeuppance. Today, we’d all but expect Charlie Brown to kill himself or snap and go on a shooting rampage – Lucy never pays a price in the ballpark of that kind of damage. But, hey, there a plenty of the TV movies I’ve never seen
As I was talking about the movie with my wife, she pointed out that Peanuts was created by Charlie Schultz, so Charlie Brown should be understood as his alter ego – that he’s writing from inside the picked on, depressed kid, who is, after all, the character we are supposed to most identify with. Are we similarly meant to identify, not with Bugs Bunny, but with Elmer Fudd?
I think we are, after a fashion. In the 40’s and 50’s, when those cartoons and early strips were coming out, parents still told their kids that life isn’t fair. and no one could make it fair. A little boy and girl needed to get past the unfairness, do what they needed to do, and maybe, if they were blessed, life could be good. Not necessarily more fair, but good. So seeing Elmer suffer all those completely unfair indignities and seeing Bugs get no justice for having inflicted them was hilarious – because the people watching the cartoon did not expect fairness, and poor Elmer was getting dumped on in the most excruciating unfair manner possible – by a smirking joker he hadn’t even wronged!
People could identify with Elmer and the injustices he endured, and laugh at them as at themselves and their lots in life, even if Bugs escaped Scot-free. Similarly, the manifest injustice of Charlie Brown’s treatment was just a hyperbolic statement of the injustice any man might be called on to endure.
Once the 60’s ponderously whiffled into view, the emphasis switched from doing what is right in an unfair world to making the world fair – from working on what we, ourselves, can control as individuals to the advent of a universal fix only History or the Dialectic or the actions of a vanguard could make stick. As individuals, this means moving away from the idea of the noble failure, that life is unfair, I did my best, and that’s all anyone can do. After all, the old thinking goes, the *good* things in my life are also unfair – I didn’t pick my family or nation of birth, nor my sex, nor my talents. My job is to honor the good gifts and do good, not to wish that they had been otherwise.
In the new world, fairness matters supremely. Just doing good with what you’ve got is naive at best, and on the wrong side of History at worst. The emphasis switches from identifying with the undeserved suffering of Elmer Fudd and Charlie Brown to insisting that justice gets done. Finally, in the new Peanuts Movie (See? I eventually brought ‘er back around!) we get justice and fairness. Charlie Brown is a hero and gets the girl! It’s completely fair!
And more of a fantasy than Wiley E. Coyote’s repeated survival.