Monday, July 13, 2009

DVD Review: PEANUTS 1960s COLLECTION (Warner Home Video)

I know that Warner HV has already released several of the 1960s PEANUTS specials under separate cover -- and I have both A Charlie Brown Christmas and It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in my collection -- but I couldn't pass up this reasonably-priced compilation of all six PEANUTS specials released in that decade. These are the bumpy, lumpy, crude, yet utterly winning half-hours that made the reputation of the Bill Melendez Studios and ensured a long, happy life on the small screen (and, later, the big screen) for Charlie Brown and the gang.

Along with the evergreen specials mentioned above -- which are still regularly run on TV to this day -- the set includes Charlie Brown's All-Stars, You're In Love, Charlie Brown, He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown, and It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown. The last-named of these was produced during the ramp-up to the first full-length feature film starring the PEANUTS characters, so we get a clear picture of how Melendez' "graphic blandishment facilitators" polished their skills in preparation for that step up in class. The Disney Studio's progression from Steamboat Willie to Snow White it ain't, but the animation and draftsmanship in Short Summer is a considerable improvement over that of CB Christmas, while preserving many of the quirky facial expressions and other oddities that make these early efforts so charming.

It's important to remember how "cutting-edge" these cartoons were at the time they were made. Conventional wisdom held that professionally trained adults were needed to voice children, but Schulz and Melendez insisted on using real kids. (Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Chris Shea as Linus, Gai DeFaria as Peppermint Patty -- and, needless to say, Melendez as Snoopy, who, it's amazing to think now, some folks wanted to have an actual voice, rather than the howls, snickers, and hoots we're all familiar with -- still rank, in my mind, as the canonical voices for their respective characters.) The jazz tracks of Vince Guaraldi sounded nothing like any other contemporary "cartoon music," yet they've become synonymous with the specials and have birthed several best-selling records, to boot. Needless to say, the decision to climax CB Christmas with Linus' simple recital of the Nativity Story from Luke's Gospel flew in the face of the "trend towards cultural homogenization" favored in the era of the "Big Three" networks. In the 1970s and beyond, the PEANUTS specials certainly looked slicker than these efforts, but they were a little hollow and formulaic at times, a little too quick to hop on trends (It's Flashbeagle, anyone? Anyone?...), and lacked such memorable moments as, for example, the wrist-wrestling match between Snoopy and Lucy in Short Summer, the World War I Flying Ace dogfight in Great Pumpkin (which Melendez reused in He's Your Dog and A Boy Named Charlie Brown), and Charlie's agonized efforts to meet the Little Red-Haired Girl in You're In Love -- to say nothing of Linus' Gospel reading. Schulz gradually unbent himself a bit on the issue of "selling out" -- allowing Charlie Brown to kiss the Red-Haired Girl in 1977's It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown, permitting adult voices and characters to appear in the This is America mini-series and elsewhere -- but here we get the animated PEANUTS in its purest, most authentic form.

The "remastered" cartoons look reasonably good, though I did notice some streakiness in scenes with dark, full-color backgrounds (e.g. the scene in CB Christmas where Charlie Brown is looking up at the blue, star-spangled night sky). The only extra is a lengthy and intermittently interesting documentary about Vince Guaraldi that occasionally strays a bit too far into "jazz insider" territory. The previous releases of CB Christmas and Great Pumpkin had mini-docs that detailed the stories of the cartoons' creation, but they are not included here for some reason. Perhaps Warners thought that those purchasing this set would probably also have the earlier releases, but the omission still strikes me as a bit strange... and why not have a commentary or two with surviving animators as an alternative voice track to several of these? Irritatingly, You're in Love is specified as being on Disc 1 on the DVD cover, but is on Disc 2 inside. Not even the notoriously desultory Disney DVD would have made that big of a mistake, I think.

Hopefully, Warners will follow this up with a 1970s collection. Beyond that, I think I'll stick to YouTube. Something went out of the cartoons for me when Guaraldi passed and Melendez et al. started playing havoc with "canon." These cartoons, however, are definite keepers for anyone with an interest in the PEANUTS phenomenon or 1960s pop culture in general.


Joe Torcivia said...

There were numerous clips of Bill Melendez on the Looney Tunes Golden Collections, before his passing. It’s actually surprising there is no such material that Warners could use here. Peanuts, and its impact on what was then contemporary animation, is certainly worthy of in-depth feature coverage. Though, more so than a program or episode, I’d hate to see an extra feature “double-dipped”, if I owned the original.

I guess these specials are so ingrained, that I never even considered that (prior to them) most “little-kid voices” were done by the likes of Daws Butler, Don Messick, Mel Blanc, June Foray, Janet Waldo, and Dick Beals (…never mind Clarence Nash)! Go from WB, to Hanna-Barbera, to Jay Ward, to Roger Ramjet… and on and on. That WAS a significant move that made the show less cartoon-like and more naturalistic!

With this Peanuts collection, two Sat AM Cartoons 1960s sets (one out now, another coming in October) and the Tom and Jerry Chuck Jones Collection, WHV appears to be giving the sixties their due! And it couldn’t happen to a more interesting decade!

…Now, if only they’d finish Huckleberry Hound!

Chris Barat said...


Melendez was prominently featured on the mini-documentaries I mentioned that were included with the earlier releases. (They must have been recorded not long before his death.)Another reason why I wish they'd been included with this set.


Gregory Weagle said...

Yeah; there was a time where I bragged about how original TaleSpin was in using real children in all their child character voice overs; until someone on Usenet pointed out that Bill Melendez and company were doing it for the Peanuts gang for YEARS. Still; it's nice to know where Magon gets his ideas from. Despite the downside of using children as voiceovers; I think it's a bonus since it does sound more real; but then again comedy cartoons never needed them since emotion wasn't needed and therefore you could fake the voice and no one would notice.

But try pathos without acting and it doesn't work. At least from my experience watching shows. Which is why is was a smart move on Bill's part to use children to voice the children for more realism.

And as for Snoopy: I guess the critics couldn't tell the difference between a talking balloon and a thinking balloon. Tells you the smarts of them doesn't it?