Director: Bill Melendez
Writer: Charles M. Schulz
Cast: Peter Robbins, Christopher Shea, Kathy Steinberg, Tracy Stratford, Chris Doran, Geoffrey Ornstein, Karen Mendelson, Sally Dryer, Ann Altieri, Bill Melendez
Plot: It’s nearly Christmas, but Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) can’t seem to find it within himself to enjoy the season. Nobody is sending him any Christmas cards, his little sister Sally (Kathy Steinberg) is more concerned with getting presents than any spirit of generosity, and even his dog Snoopy (Bill Melendez) is giving himself over to a Christmas decorating contest. His “psychiatrist,” Lucy Tracy Stratford), suggests that he take a hand in directing the children’s Christmas play. She also confides that she feels the holiday blahs as well, never getting the gift she really wants: real estate. Charlie Brown arrives at the theater to find a disjointed group of performers who lack any real holiday spirit, and his best efforts to turn things around avail him nothing. Lucy finally suggests that he find a big, shiny aluminum Christmas tree to help with the celebration, and he sets out with her brother Linus Christopher Shea) to search. Instead of one of the garish plastic and metal monstrosities that Lucy wants, though, Charlie Brown finds a little sprig of a tree that looks like it needs love. Lucy and the others mock the tree, and Charlie Brown, depressed, asks if there’s anyone who can tell him what Christmas is all about.
Linus, of course, can. In one of the most memorable moments in animation history, Linus Van Pelt recites the Christmas story from the Bible, reminding his friends that the season is not about plays or trees or decorations, but about something much, much deeper. Encouraged, Charlie Brown tries to decorate his little tree, but with one ornament it collapses. He slinks away, heartbroken, but Linus leads the rest of the children in fixing the tree and making it beautiful. Charlie Brown returns to see what they’ve done, and his friends wish him a Merry Christmas.
Thoughts: Is there any special as beloved, and as deservedly so, as A Charlie Brown Christmas? I’ve always thought that Peanuts in general, the classic comic strip by Charles M. Schulz, represents the pinnacle of human philosophy in the 20th century. There is no other work of art that so succinctly and completely captures the human spirit as Schulz’s squiggle children and their outlandish dog. And this, the first of what would become a mini-empire of animated classics, is perhaps the greatest of them all.
The special, as the story goes, was difficult to get made. Schulz and Melendez had collaborated on some short animated pieces for commercials and a TV documentary about the comic strip, and crafted the story in just a few days after Melendez committed the pair to producing it. They insisted on using real child actors to voice the children, which was unheard of at the time and especially problematic in that some of the cast was too young to read and needed their lines cued by Melendez (whose heavy Mexican accent can actually be heard in a few of the lines where the children parroted his voice too closely). The CBS network objected to Vince Guaraldi’s jazz soundtrack, to the inclusion of the Biblical passage, to the lack of a laugh track on the cartoon, but Schulz and Melendez stood their ground. I would imagine by the time the Emmy and Peabody awards started rolling in, CBS would have realized their mistake.
It is this film’s lack of perfection, I think, that makes it perfect. The animation isn’t polished, the voice actors are clearly amateurs, the editing can be choppy at times. But at the same time, the entire point of the story is that Christmas is supposed to be about something more than glitz and glamour, that the heart of the season is what really matters, and that there’s no reason to be ashamed of loving something, flaws and all. How hollow would that message ring in some of the computer animated films of today, the ones where all the characters look like polished plastic and none of them seem to have any souls? (Yes, I know that there’s currently a CGI Peanuts feature film in the works. I’m trying not to think about it.)
The imperfection of the plotting leads to some of this cartoon’s best character moments. This is one of the shortest synopses I’ve written for a Reel to Reel study since the early days of the first project, and the reason for that is that the actual plot is wonderfully short. Nearly half the cartoon is taken up by tangents that have nothing to do with the story – an ice-skating sequence, Linus showing up the rest of the kids pelting snowballs at a tin can, Lucy flirting with Schroeder on his piano. All of these bits are superfluous as far as the story goes, but go a long way towards demonstrating who these characters are and why they should matter to us.
It doesn’t matter if the lips don’t synch with the words, that the mouths disappear when characters stop talking, that there’s no physical universe in which Charlie Brown’s face in profile and Charlie Brown’s face head-on could possible occupy the same head. If you’re focusing on stuff like that, my friends, you have completely missed the point of this film.
In addition to being an excellent cartoon about the true meaning of Christmas, this special goes a long way towards making Peanuts the cultural icon it is are today. This cartoon was made 15 years into the comic strip’s legendary 50-year run, and while 15 years seems like a long time, in those early years the comic strip and its characters were very much in flux. Lucy was introduced as a baby then aged to being the elder of the group. Sally and Linus were both born during the course of the strip. Snoopy began as a relatively normal dog, but his imagination and behavior grew more and more outlandish. By the time this cartoon was made, the characters had finally settled into the personalities and roles that would define them for the rest of the century. To many of us, Lucy will always be the fussbudget in the psychiatrist booth, Snoopy will always be the dog capable of winning a decorating contest, and Linus will be the child wise beyond his years, the one who puts everything into perspective. (At least until Halloween.)
For all the generations that have been born since this cartoon premiered, how many of us first formed our opinions of these characters by watching A Charlie Brown Christmas? It’s not just a great Christmas special, this is an important piece of Americana. It’s part of our cultural heritage. And on our best days, as it always was with Charles Schulz’s comics, it is who we really are.
For all the dozens of Peanuts cartoons that followed, it was almost 30 years before they tried another Christmas tale – this time with 1992’s It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown. This would be followed again by Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales in 2002 and the ambitious hour-long special I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown in 2003. While these cartoons, like all Peanuts specials, have their moments of sweetness, nothing has ever approached the pure, sincere beauty of the original, and I daresay nothing ever will.
Don’t forget, The Christmas Special is the third Reel to Reel movie study. The first, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!