Review by KC Carlson
As the Peanuts TV specials finished out the end of the 1970s, behind the scenes, the creative team producing the specials was shaken by a tremendous loss — Vince Guaraldi, the jazz musician and pianist who had been associated with every Peanuts special since the very first one, passed away on February 6, 1976, of a heart attack. His music had come to be so identified with the Peanuts specials — especially the timeless signature tune “Linus and Lucy” — that his loss was significantly felt.
Further, the six specials (episodes 13-18 in original running order for those keeping count; see the 1960’s Collection and the first 1970’s Collection for the rest) that make up the Peanuts 1970s Collection Volume 2 are kind of a mixed bag. There are high points and low, and a couple of interesting experiments. The specials also tended to drift away from using the past comic strips as their basis, which meant more opportunities for all-new, original stories and settings. But that also meant putting Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the gang in some unfamiliar territory — not all of it completely successful.
All but one of the specials on this set (What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown) have been previously released on DVD (although not all remastered by Warner Bros.). And You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown and You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown have been previously reviewed by me.
Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown originally aired on January 28, 1975, and is largely based on scenarios first used in the comic strip. (Charlie Brown waiting by the mailbox for valentines; Linus having a crush on his teacher, while Sally has a crush on Linus; and Snoopy’s paw-pet shows.) Snoopy is quite amusing in this one, especially miming to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and his paw-pet performances are quite fascinating to watch in animation (as opposed to static drawings). Schroeder also plays a big part in the special, both as silent foil to Lucy’s comic neuroses and as staunch friend to Charlie Brown. According to legend, after the original airing of this special, children all across the country sent Valentines to poor Charlie Brown (via Charles Schulz’ studio). This was a very good episode, sticking closely to core Peanuts storylines and characterizations.
It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown originally aired on March 16, 1976. It’s the animated debut of Rerun Van Pelt, who starts off the show with a couple of jokes about riding on the back of his mom’s bicycle (straight from the strips). He also plays a key role in a big joke later in the episode. There are still quite a few sequences that play off the strips, but the main premise (and pay-off) is brand new. After Sally is humiliated in school about Arbor Day (she thinks it’s the day the ships sail into the “arbor”), she learns the real meaning of Arbor Day — tree planting and conservation — so she and some of the kids decide to plant a garden — on the site of Charlie Brown’s baseball field.
Meanwhile, Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty are discussing the upcoming baseball schedule (“And then we’ll slaughter you twice in April,” she gloats) and realize that their first game is at Chuck’s field. Charlie Brown is horrified to discover that his beloved baseball diamond is now overgrown with plants and trees, but they play the game anyway. Oddly, the new field actually helps them play better. (Scarecrows with baseball gloves in the outfield catch better than Lucy can, and Snoopy climbs trees to snag potential home-run balls.) And Lucy, after Schroder bets (a kiss) that she cannot, hits her very first home run! It looks like Charlie Brown’s team is going to win its very first game… and then you have to watch the episode to see what happens.
Supposedly, this once was a rarely seen special, as it was criticized for using an obscure holiday as subject matter, and critics often point to this episode as when the decline in quality of the Peanuts special began to set in. I think it’s a little uneven, but it still has lots of good bits to recommend it. The episode also has another sad landmark — It’s the last show with music by Vince Guaraldi. Reportedly he died just hours after he finished composing this episode.
What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown and It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown are shown out of chronological order on this box set, as First Kiss was actually broadcast on October 24, 1977, before 1978’s Nightmare. This one starts out with a really sweet sequence. Woodstock with his tiny movie camera (and where does one get a bird-sized movie camera, anyway?) sits on Snoopy’s lap. Then Snoopy’s ears start to rotate like a propeller, and the two fly off together to grab some birds-eye footage of the local homecoming parade. And then the music starts playing — and suddenly something seems wrong! This is the first episode without the trademark Vince Guaraldi music (although the “Linus and Lucy” theme is used by new composers Ed Bogus and Judy Munsen).
This special is best known in Peanuts history as the first place Charlie Brown’s Little Red-Haired Girl gets a name (Heather) and her first actual appearance. Schulz never drew her in the strip (except once, in silhouette) because he could never draw her to the reader’s (or his own) satisfaction. (She’s designed here by the animators, not Schulz.) Unfortunately, she’s portrayed as kind of a dippy Homecoming Queen, who barely says anything and basically just stands around looking pretty, with her court of equally vapid attendants. Schulz was right — the Red-Haired Girl, once seen, can’t live up to viewer expectations. It’s the boys’ duty to escort the girls to the homecoming dance, lead them out to the dance floor, and kiss them on the cheek. Charlie Brown has to escort the Red-Headed Heather, and he’s about to explode in anticipation.
But first there’s an organized homecoming football game to play — a rarity for the Peanuts gang. Their uniforms are bizarre. They all wear the same helmets and football pants, but everybody wears their own (identifiable) shirts instead of jerseys, except Lucy wears her blue dress, and Peppermint Patty (the player-coach) wears her usual green shirt and sandals — except her sandals have cleats (as do Lucy’s saddle shoes). The game is close, but the Peanuts gang is always behind, and they keep getting into the same scenario where the kicker (Charlie Brown) could pull ahead or win the game with a successful kick. Except his ball holder is Lucy. (Need I say more?) Obviously, they lose the game, and everybody blames Charlie Brown, although Lucy is actually at fault. This is a major fault of the special and eventually led to some post-original airing dubbing to clarify it. Bizarrely, the dubbing was done by reversing the audio and reducing it in volume, so it is now unintelligible on the DVD (unless you play it backwards). Where Patty yelled at Charlie Brown four times, now two of them have been overdubbed with this method to reduce the count.
Then comes the homecoming dance, and the kiss goes off without a hitch, except the next day, Charlie Brown cannot remember it (nor anything else that happens, although Linus informs him that he was the life of the party!). It’s a BIg Event special, but kind of disjointed because of that. And what kind of organized football game would have a beagle as the official, the referee, and the doctor (!) of the game?
What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown originally aired on February 23, 1978, and really lives up to its title, as it is a bizarre and often frightening story. It stars Charlie Brown and Snoopy (the only Peanuts characters to appear), as Charlie Brown begins to wonder if his dog has become too civilized. While he’s deciding, Snoopy makes and bakes five pizzas (from scratch), devours them all, and then has nightmares when he drifts off to sleep.
The beagle dreams of becoming an Arctic sled dog, the smallest one in the pack, who must run for hours in awful weather conditions and then battle for his share of food (raw meat) with the other sled dogs. Snoopy eventually realizes that if he’s ever going to eat again, he has to toughen up. He begins a transformation into a truly ferocious dog who growls and fights and takes all the food, as well as becoming the new lead dog of the pack after defeating the previous dog in a brutal fight. These scenes are rally tough to watch, as they are so un-Peanuts-like and un-humorous and so far from any kind of story that we are used to seeing with these characters.
Of course, it’s all a dream, and Snoopy being Snoopy doesn’t really learn a lesson from it. It’s also accompanied by one of those songs (“Overlycivilized, Underlydogified Dog”), with vocals by an omniscient narrator, that just never works for me in these specials. The only comedy in the entire episode is in the beginning, when Snoopy tricks Charlie Brown into pulling the sled, and a bizarre side-trip during the dream sequence where Snoopy ends up in a saloon, playing piano and poker and dancing the can-can on stage. Maybe there’s a reason why this one was never previously released on DVD?
You’re Groovy, Charlie Brown: A Look at Peanuts in the ‘70s is an 18-minute featurette with a really bad name that actually is a really great little mini-documentry about Schulz’s life in the 70’s. We see a lot of Schulz’ studio in California, and artists will especially appreciate the lengthy discussion of Schulz’ artistic techniques, as well as geek-speak about specific pen-tips and paper stock –preprinted with the never-changing (until near the end of the strip) four-panel strip borders. Here’s a clip:
As always, the Peanuts specials are fun for a quick escape from the daily tedium of life, and many of them are timeless classics. With this collection, we can see the series starting to experiment and occasionally misstep a bit, but still great fun to those just looking for an enjoyable cartoon — especially the legion of children who have and will continue to grow up with the Peanuts gang. (The studio provided a review copy.)