The prospect of a new “Peanuts” film sounds especially welcome in these tense times. “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” et al. provided some of most beloved moments in the history of TV animation. Sadly, “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown,” which has just been released on DVD falls down on the job, not unlike a would-be placekicker we all know and love.
More than a decade after the death of Charles Schulz, his strip remains popular in reruns, and the characters are still ubiquitous. But virtually all of the key artists involved in the classic specials have died — not only Schulz, but director Bill Melendez (who also provided Snoopy’s howls and laughs), key animator Bill Littlejohn and composer Vince Guaraldi, whose jazz scores set the bright tone.
“Warm Blanket” was co-written by Schulz’s son, Craig, and Stephan Pastis, the creator of the comic strip “Pearls Before Swine.” Pastis was an odd choice. Although “Pearls” is a very popular strip, its humor tends to be hip and edgy and possessing a mean-spirit that runs counter to the “Peanuts” ethos. The familiar characters sound angry, impatient and sarcastic; the viewer looking for joy and whimsy will do so in vain.
The new film is largely based on two long continuities Schulz drew decades ago about Lucy trying to break Linus of his blanket habit. In early 1961, she buried his blanket, forcing him to dig up the entire neighborhood searching for it. Lucy made the blanket into a kite that blew away in mid-1962. When the Air Rescue Service found it floating in the ocean, Linus proudly announced, “Lt. Commander Carpenter and my blanket … both within five weeks!”
Despite the solid source material, the story rambles aimlessly. Several minutes elapse before the plot actually begins and the narrative is padded with irrelevant moments taken from decades of Schulz’s work. Violet, Patty and Shermy, whom Schulz lost interest in and dropped from the strip, turn up to re-create some of the first published “Peanuts’ strips. Obvious commercial breaks and the 44-minute running time remind us that the film was crafted to be a one-hour TV special. In fact, this is the 45th entry in the series but the first without Melendez, suggesting just how much pressure was on the new team.
Mark Mothersbaugh, the Devo co-founder whose music credits in animation includes “Rugrats” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” delivers a score that is pedestrian at best, and the animation itself is surprisingly uneven. Sometimes the characters have the lively feel of the old specials, sometimes they stand or move awkwardly. The backgrounds include garish colors Schulz never used, and they’re too big and fussy. Although Schulz’s earliest strips featured broad exterior vistas and carefully rendered rooms of mid-century furniture, he quickly abandoned that look. He stripped his settings to an almost arid minimum, focusing tightly on the characters.
During one of the many false endings of “Warm Blanket,” Linus stands atop Snoopy’s dog house and bluntly denounces everyone else’s failures and insecurities. The moment is completely out of character for the gentle, theologically oriented Linus — and a very, very long way from his understated recitation of the Gospel of St. Luke, the moment that spoke to the Holy Ghost that was at work in the best “Peanuts” animation.
– Charles Solomon
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