Monday, January 31, 2011

DVD Review: PEANUTS 1970s COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video, 2010)

I'll gamely resist the obvious temptation to link the out-of-left-field "Motocross" theme of You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown (1975) to Fonzie's infamous flight and state uncategorically, definitively, and absotively that It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown (1977), the fifth (though actually fourth in chronological order) of the six episodes in this back-end-of-the-70s collection, stands as THE moment when the PEANUTS TV franchise officially "jumped the shark." The infamous episode that brought the Little Red-Haired Girl "on stage" for what Charles Schulz himself later admitted was the "cheap thrill" of having Charlie Brown get to meet and kiss his "dream girl" also marked the first PEANUTS special without the invaluable musical contributions of Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi's distinctive scores made even the lesser efforts of the TV franchise's first decade enjoyable. With First Kiss, we suddenly switch to something that the Schulz of ten years before would have dismissed out of hand as "generic cartoon music." To make matters worse, we start hearing the notorious wokka-chih-wokka! undertones of the disco era. It was only a short slide-step from there to Flashbeagle and all that that implied. Tack on the sheer unfairness of Charlie Brown getting blamed for his football team losing the "big game" when it was Lucy (doing the football-pulling-away routine on a "real" stage, this time) who was the real culprit, and First Kiss has a lot to answer for. What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown (1978) provided a welcome return to something like form -- albeit in an extremely unusual format and venue -- but I can't honestly say that I loved, or even overly liked, any PEANUTS special after that one, and even Nightmare originally struck me as more "weird" than anything else, only to grow on me later. So this package truly does represent the last of the "vintage" PEANUTS TV output.

The three Guaraldi eps in this set all have their good points, though Good Sport, with its patchy plot (which, like those of some of the weaker early shows, takes a good long while to get moving) and forced attempt to "sell Motocross," has fewer than either Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown (1975) or It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown (1976). Valentine is unspectacular but gets the job done; why else would Charlie Brown have been sent a flood of valentines after its original showing, just as people sent him candy to make up for getting all those rocks at Halloween? The show also cleverly updates the evergreen theme of Linus' crush on Miss Othmar by giving Miss O. a hot car and a boyfriend (and, presumably, a Women's Lib membership card). Arbor Day is often patronized because of the "sense of holiday desperation" suggested by the title, and it is rather strange that the obscure fete was chosen over, say, New Year's Day, which PEANUTS didn't get to until much later, or July 4th. A fresh viewing, however, reveals a clever juxtaposition of tree-talk with the opening of the gang's baseball season, and the scene of Charlie and Peppermint Patty's teams attempting to play ball in what has now been converted into an orchard is one of the most imaginative that Schulz, Melendez, & co. ever devised. Good Sport has one or two funny bits (e.g. the injured Charlie and "Masked Marvel" Snoopy getting brought to the vet and the hospital -- and that's the correct order), but I detect the start of a somewhat cynical attitude here. "Motocross" was never anything close to a big deal in the comic strip; tennis (which Snoopy plays vs. a ball-chucking machine and Woodstock in a l-o-o-o-o-o-ong sequence at the start) was much more relevant to the gang at this time, reflecting as it did Schulz' contemporary athletic interests. Was Schulz trying to sneak a new strip concept in through the back door, essaying a "TV test balloon" of some sort? If so, then the gambit obviously didn't work.

As noted above, What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown looks a lot better in retrospect. Such a radical departure -- Snoopy essentially soloing (with, of course, no dialogue as a result) and being forced to undergo a stern (albeit imaginary) trial as a sled dog in a quasi-realistic Frozen North where Scrooge McDuck and Glittering Goldie might not have seemed out of place -- needed complete conviction from all involved in order to work, and Melendez' animators rise to the challenge. Snoopy's facial expressions during his agonizing ordeal are priceless, as is the scene in the saloon (honky-tonk?!) where ol' Snoop tries without success to be a can-can dancer and clean up at the poker table. Then, of course, just when he's discovered that he needs to be a real dog in order to survive, he wakes up and it's back to normal (or what passes as such for Snoopy). Even the music in this special works reasonably well, throwing in harmonica riffs and an atmospheric player-piano tune to add to the ambience. Unfortunately, the high of this special wasn't sustained in the final entry in this collection, You're The Greatest, Charlie Brown (1979), which drags us through all ten events of the decathlon, tossing in a few surreptitious licks of the Olympic Theme for good measure. Charlie Brown and Marcie's sportsmanship is admirable but has the feel of a "this-is-good-for-you" theme that was stressed one or two too many times. We see a sort of anticipation here of such later specials as Why, Charlie Brown, Why? (1990) and What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983). In You're The Greatest, however, the rap of the schoolmaster's stick is a little too sharp. Alas, so is the adult voice of the track announcer, which opens up a whole new can of worms that would only grow wigglier as we moved into the 80s. (Adults of a sort do appear in What a Nightmare, it's true, but they follow convention; sled-dog Snoopy's master is only seen in silhouette and speaks with the familiar trombone-voice, while we only see bits and pieces of the bodies of the saloon patrons. I'm willing to forgive that because of the highly unusual nature of the special; we had to have some substantial visual evidence that we were "really" in the Arctic in order for the show's conceit to work.)

The only extra here is "You're Groovy, Charlie Brown," which purports to examine PEANUTS in the 70s. How strange, then, that I saw so many clips from the Schulz documentaries of the 60s tossed in. It seems that even the extra-makers realized that this collection well and truly marked the passing of the glory days.

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