Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang are scheduled to hit the big screen for the first time since the death of creator Charles Schulz. Schulz's son and grandson are part of the writing team and the film will be directed by the guy who finally gave big screen life to Dr. Seuss with "Horton Hears a Who." This news gives reason for hope. Now if I may be permitted to give just four words of advice.
Few will argue that the quality of the Peanuts animated TV specials began a long, slow, sad decline somewhere around the time that Richard Nixon waved goodbye to the office of President and disappeared inside that helicopter. Occasional and all too brief moments of the glory days of the 1960s Peanuts specials could be found and few of the programs caused the utter despair one felt while watching Snoopy flashdance, but a run of more than two decades of mostly unsatisfying visits to the neighborhood Charlie Brown shared with Linus, Schroeder and Peppermint Patty had one starting to question if the magic could ever be recaptured.
Then the new millennium brought redemption in the form of Sally falling over a tree and Linus meeting a strange girl who changed her name every day. In the blink of an eye, a Peanuts animated TV special became a comedy on its own terms again and not just an increased struggle to regain a sense of nostalgia. What the new Charlie Brown movie needs to do is look back at "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales" to see what this special did right that so many others since those classic specials of the 1960s did so wrong.
Bringing in the director of "Horton Hears a Who" seems about perfect. After all, "Horton Hears a Who" in movie form is not pure Dr. Seuss. The quirky little animated movie with a social conscience and political dimension has a postmodern sensibility to it that finds the greatness in Seuss' liberal-humanist thought without banging you over the head with it like a certain movie about a lumberjack and definitely without letting spectacle overwhelm its simplicity like a certain live action movie about stealing a holiday.
"Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales" succeeds precisely because it did not seek to replicate the wholesomeness of the original Peanuts Christmas special that belongs to a different time. The comedy to be found in this 21st century Peanuts Christmas special is based on sharper insight into character than those that came before. Sally's hysterically paradoxical twinning of social innocence and emotional aggression is allowed to blossom into full complexity and, in the process, making her the funniest member of the gag.
Something similar occurs with Linus. Ever since that spotlight hit him in the first Christmas special and he recited scripture in that refreshingly non-judgmental voice, Linus' position as the conscience of the Peanuts gang has battled with Charles Schulz's simultaneous desire to present Lucy's brother as being flustered by practical matters of humanity. More subtly than ever before, Schulz makes Linus a symbol of the contradiction of those who so easily grasp humanity in theory but are befuddled by their individual behavior.
For the Browns, the Van Pelts, Snoopy and their friends to work on the big screen in the 21st century, the filmmakers absolutely have to jettison any plans to recreate what made the Peanuts so beloved on film in the first place. "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales" did for Charles Schulz what the big screen movie version of "Horton Hears a Who" did for Dr. Seuss. And it is to the Christmas of 2002 that the writers and director should look rather than the Christmas of 1964.
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