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TELEVISION: 'Peanuts' special is no 'Charlie Brown Christmas'

by Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times (TNS) | December 16, 2021 at 1:31 a.m.
The gang’s all here on the Peanuts holiday special, “Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne.” (Apple TV+/TNS)

A mere 56 years separate "A Charlie Brown Christmas," a television classic, from Apple TV+'s new "Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne," a television special. (Snoopy is the brand leader now.)

The first Peanuts special in a decade, following Fox's "Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown" — Apple has mounted two series in the meantime, "Snoopy in Space" and "The Snoopy Show," featuring Charles Schulz's characters — it is solid holiday entertainment that diligently hits a host of Schulz-ean notes and works in all the major characters.

If it doesn't achieve real depth or transcendence, it may be because reassurance is its end. Which may be just what you crave, after all.

When Schulz was persuaded to provide Coca-Cola with a holiday special to sponsor on CBS back in the Johnson administration, it was technically not the first time that "Peanuts" characters had been animated, but the first fully formed use of them off the newspaper page, and a creative, critical and popular triumph. Even in the context of television animation, it had an idiosyncratic flair, with its painterly backgrounds and Vince Guaraldi jazz piano score, which lights up Yuletide playlists and mixtapes to this day.

Like "Peanuts," the comic strip from which it imported many of its gags, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" — now available to nonsubscribers on PBS — applies a bright, lively aesthetic to somber themes: commercialism, holiday depression and spiritual seriousness. It set a high bar, probably never equaled, even through the years Schulz was alive and providing the teleplays himself — an astonishing 39 specials were produced under his watch before his death in 2000. I say "probably" because I have of course not seen them all but I doubt any has produced a sound bite as trenchant as Sally Brown saying of her Christmas list, "All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share."

In the new special, the existential crisis is transferred to, of all people, Lucy Van Pelt, the strip's resident antagonist, who interprets her grandmother's failure to come for Christmas as a sign she is not lovable; in a panic, she determines to throw a big New Year's Eve party to prove otherwise.

I can't say whether some of the jokes might not have been imported from the strip (research shows that at least one has, reassigned to a different character), but the gags generally follow its four-panel rhythms. Like "Peanuts," the new special happily lives in the 20th century. Lucy speaks to her grandmother on a landline, and when Charlie Brown attempts to watch "Citizen Kane" to fulfill a resolution to "view a great work of art" before the new year, it is in a bean bag chair in front of an old-fashioned cathode-ray tube television.

Although it lacks the handmade charm of the Lee Mendelson-produced, Bill Melendez-directed specials of old, the animation, by Canada's WildBrain Studios, deftly captures Schulz's line, rounding out characters with subtle lighting effects, so that they handily inhabit a world appropriately more 2D than three. Slapstick sequences, which Schulz had a gift for suggesting on the page, are smoothly executed.

Snoopy, the title notwithstanding, also takes a bit of a back seat here, swamped by his reuniting brothers and sisters. Woodstock is, as always, the animators' friend, and Sally, attempting to stay awake to midnight, is, as always, the funniest human.

"Peanuts," as Schulz himself expressed, and many commentators have observed, limns a cruel world; the artist's alter ego, Charlie Brown, is a serial loser. The new special, which cribs an ending from "It's a Wonderful Life," is almost distressingly sentimental, but given the premise, the times and the context, I don't suppose there is a way around it.

More than ever, cartoons can be complex and strange and dark, but the "Peanuts" global merchandise franchise, which is a form of celebration, has long outlived, and long outstripped, the strip itself. (It died with Schulz.) Lucy does take shots at Charlie Brown here ("It's more than a feeling," she tells him at her 5-cent psychiatrist's booth when he says he feels like a failure, and she suggests for him a path of "sensible mediocrity"), for whom things will inevitably go wrong. The familiar cries of "Good grief!" "Rats!" and "Auugh!" ring out. But where Charlie Brown's loneliness is intrinsic to his character, here there is only one possible answer to a child asking, as Lucy does, "Am I not lovable?" Have we worried until now whether she is?

Yet who am I to say that Lucy Van Pelt can't feel pain or make an apology or do something sweet? There are Schulzes among the executive producers, and it is literally their business.

More News

  • ‘Snoopy Presents: For Auld Lang Syne’
  • Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)
  • Premiered Friday on Apple TV+


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