Why I love the melancholy Peanuts holiday specials.

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Oct. 31 2008 12:20 PM

Good Grief

Why I love the melancholy Peanuts holiday specials.

Charlie Brown Deluxe Holiday Collection DVD.

What sound is most evocative of autumn? The crackling of dry leaves? The singsong chant of trick-or-treaters? The zip-zipping of corduroy jeans as you walk down the street? For anyone who remembers watching the original Charlie Brown Christmas special in 1965—or in any of the 42 years it's aired since—the single best aural reminder of the waning year has to be the bouncy piano vamp of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy," better known as the Peanuts song. The Van Pelts' theme doesn't appear until midway through A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it was so instantly and indelibly associated with Charles Schulz's characters that it became the opening song for subsequent specials.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

Those specials—at least the big three: the Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas shows that were recently released in a "deluxe holiday collection" by Warner Bros.—have a mood unlike any animated film for children made before or since. For one thing, they're really, really slow—slow not just by our ADD-addled contemporary standards but also next to the programming of their own time. Just compare the meandering pace of A Charlie Brown Christmas (in which Charlie tries, and fails, to direct a single rehearsal of a Christmas play) with the generation-spanning epic crammed into Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). But what really sets the Peanuts specials apart is their sadness. Even digitally remastered, with the background colors restored to their original vivid crispness, the Peanuts holiday specials have a faded quality, like artifacts from a lost civilization. As Linus observes of the wan, drooping pine sprig Charlie Brown eventually rescues from a huge lot of pink aluminum Christmas trees, "This doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit."

Here I could write an epic poem detailing the multiple felicities of the Peanuts specials: the van Gogh-esque night sky that dwarfs Linus and Sally as they wait in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin, Linus' stirring reading from the Gospel of Luke at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the impossibly hip "Little Birdie" song that plays in the background as Snoopy and Woodstock prep for their Thanksgiving feast. But I'll let you rediscover the specials' quiet joys for yourself, and I'll stick to describing the added value this collection provides: the fascinating but far too short making-of documentaries that are appended to each disc.

Those early specials were the output of a small creative team that was given free rein by CBS, as long as the results continued to pull in a giant Nielsen share. (The debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas was watched by literally half the viewing audience, a percentage unimaginable in our cable-fragmented era.) These were men who took their Peanuts very seriously indeed: Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson, and legendary animator Bill Melendez, who died last month at 91. It was Melendez who was responsible for figuring out how to turn Schulz's famously flat, spare drawings into moving pictures with backgrounds, as he recounts in interviews here. How were the characters' flat, boatlike feet actually supposed to walk? (Melendez had to invent a special gait, several beats faster than the normal human footstep, to make them move convincingly.) How does Charlie Brown's single strand of hair change shape when he moves from a profile to a front view?

The making-of featurettes also detail Schulz's close involvement in the writing and animation process. He insisted on the absence of a laugh track and on giving the Peanuts kids the voices of real children, many of them nonprofessionals. Since the kids, who ranged in age from 6 to 11, rapidly aged out of their parts, there was an ongoing search for new voice talent (though sometimes it could be found close to home; Christopher Shea, the original voice of Linus, was eventually replaced by his younger brother Stephen). The younger actors, still unable to memorize lines (or, in some cases, to read), had to have their lines fed to them half a line at a time by Melendez, who supervised all the recording sessions and provided the nonverbal stylings of Snoopy. This line-by-line editing process is what lent the Peanuts voices their signature choppy rhythm—if you listen carefully, you can hear the seams between words. Mendelson, a charming storyteller, remembers how a girl voicing the part of Sally once had to be rushed into the studio for an all-night recording session before she lost her front tooth, which would have given her a lisp that matched poorly with the scenes she'd already recorded.

If these making-of features disappoint, it's only because they leave you wanting something longer and more comprehensive (like this 1985 Schulz-hosted tribute to the 20th anniversary of the Peanuts specials). An interview with Schulz's grown son Monte provides a tiny glimpse of his father as the troubled, egotistical man portrayed in this 2007 biography of the cartoonist. Monte describes how, as an airplane-mad boy, he suggested Snoopy's Red Baron persona to his father, who promptly incorporated it into his strip. But Schulz refused to acknowledge his son's contribution, in interviews or in conversation, until the final years of his life.

Vince Guaraldi, who deserves a two-hour documentary of his own, appears in only a few tantalizing images, improvising at the piano from a storyboard drawn by Schulz. It was Guaraldi's idea to use a trombone to simulate the off-screen voices of adults, and the "wah-wah" bleat of unseen teachers and parents became a defining feature of the Peanuts universe. After Guaraldi's early death in 1976, the musical standard of the Peanuts specials went way downhill, as evidenced by this Flashdance-influenced Flashbeagle number from 1985. The extras in this collection include three latter-day Peanuts specials, from 1981, 1988, and 1992—perfectly pleasant viewing but illustrative of the shows' decline from their '60s heyday.

Making-of documentaries about animated films have a unique fascination; it's a trip to witness the collaborative process by which a bunch of photographed drawings can somehow convince us that we're really watching Lucy yank away that football. Still, all the knowledge in the world about how these shows were produced can't account for the melancholy beauty of the opening of A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which poker-faced children skate on a pond to the strangely funereal carol "Christmastime Is Here." Or the bleak hilarity of Charlie Brown's Halloween-candy haul: "I got a rock." If the featurettes were the high point of this collection for me, it's only because, like everyone else who grew up with them, I can never see these wonderful specials again for the first time.