In “The Peanuts Movie,” nods to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” drop like tasty snowflakes.
There's a flashback to a black-and-white Charles Schulz drawing of Charlie and his anemic Christmas tree. We hear snatches of Vince Guaraldi's bouncy "Linus and Lucy" theme. We even get a glimpse of the dancing, shoulder-bopping spiky-haired kid whose identity remains a mystery a half-century later.
The movie, with its digital 3D rendering and relatively happy ending (no spoilers, but it involves a certain red-headed lass), smooths out some of the rough edges of the old animation – as well as the underlying sadness behind the comics' rounded-headed depressive Everyman.
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Still, the movie marks a fitting bookend to the original Christmas special, which celebrates its 50th anniversary Monday with a broadcast on ABC. He might not have conventional Christmas tree-buying instincts, but 65 years after his first appearance in the funny papers, good 'ol Charlie Brown still knows how to serve up the holiday gifts.
The Christmas special proved groundbreaking not for its animation style, but for a tone that echoed Schulz’s then 15-year-old strip, which chronicled, through children, a very adult search for emotional stability amid the petty cruelties of everyday life. Charlie Brown confronts futility, in the form of kite-hobbling trees and snatched-away footballs, as Linus clutches his security blanket.
The special decried the commercialization of Christmas, as sensitive Charlie Brown looked for the true meaning of the holiday surrounded by a cast of characters that included kids variously mean and insightful, and a beagle adept at quick-and-gaudy decorating.
The first and the best of a long line of “Peanuts” animated TV specials and films wound up accelerating the commercialization of the franchise. Snoopy went from being the strip’s irreverent Id, with his imagination-driven Red Baron battling, to becoming a cuddlier, more marketable figure. Schulz, though, rarely lost his edge in the daily updates, which ended with his death 15 years ago.
The new movie, which has grossed more than $100 million, shows there’s still an appetite for Peanuts, even if the film offers dollops more sugary than the old-school bittersweet. The flick, hopefully, will help drive fans new and old to the small screen Monday for a golden anniversary special preceding the broadcast, when Charlie Brown sounds TV's strongest signal that Christmastime is here.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.