It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Nostalgia certainly throws a wrench into art criticism. The goal, of course, is to be objective, evaluating the work for what it is and what it means to you at that given moment. You’re answering the question, “is it good?” since our capitalist society demands we put this kind of definition on “products” to inform how we spend our money. With nostalgia, though, something may invariably be “good” to the viewer because it recalls a rosier childhood with the free time to enjoy such things or the simple pleasures of having seen something new. Whatever the reason, it certainly creates a sort of time bias, where anything experienced in our youth becomes impossible to evaluate impartially today. The worst culprit of such is undoubtedly cartoons, something every child experiences in some capacity in their lifetime. For me it’s Disney’s Robin Hood, Miyazaki & Takahata’s Panda kopanda and, thanks to a Movie Max subscription in the early nineties, Fritz the Cat. I’m not sure if I could ever properly write about those without the rose colored tint.
There’s one series I can write objectively about, though, and it’s Peanuts. Sure, my parents sat me in front of the TV to taped broadcasts of A Charlie Brown Christmas or It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but I never took to them. The animation was too rash, the jazz music was dated and the dialogue was stuffy. At least for a five year old, it was. But today, whenever Christmas or Halloween hit on the calendar, there’s usually a Charlie Brown re-run somewhere. Was I really missing something? With It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown hitting Blu-ray(!) this fall, it’s time I find out.
The leaves have changed and Lucy leads her younger brother Linus out into the pumpkin patch to embark on the October ritual of pumpkin carving. After picking out just the right one, Linus brings it back in the room and sets it on a bunch of newspapers. Lucy gets out the butcher knife, holds it up with a glimmer, and then stabs it into the top, carving it out and then pulling out the seeds. Linus waits a moment and then says, “Awww…you didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” That’s pretty existential for a little boy, but then again, Linus has a fascination with Pumpkins. He believes in the “Great Pumpkin”, who like Santa Claus will come only one day a year to bring presents to all. Except this day is Halloween, and the Great Pumpkin will resurrect from the pumpkin patch and be seen only by the staunchest believers. Christ, is that you?
Linus writes the pumpkin notes and warns everybody of his coming. He even plans on camping out on Hallows’eve to witness the coming. So chivalrous his intention, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, Sally, is smitten to the point where she too will camp out with the boy with the black and red stripes. Meanwhile, Lucy, Charlie and their friends work on making some scary Halloween costumes. Lucy lectures that a costume should be a direct opposite of the wearer’s personality, so she jokingly choses a witch. Charlie and the others opt for ghost outfits, but Charlie cuts one too many eye holes in his, looking instead like a piece of swiss cheese. When they do finally trick or treat, Charlie’s costume gets him nothing but rocks from the parents (tough crowd!). Linus stays planted in his patch, waiting for the grand moment.
While the kids engage in their own Halloween customs, Snoopy instead em-barks on a journey fit for Remembrance Day. He dresses up as a fighter pilot, and atop his dog house ends up flying high in the sky to hunt down the Red Barron. He’s shot down and is instead forced to trudge through war-ravaged France as he makes his way back home to the Peanuts gang. It starts to get late, and still no sign of the Great Pumpkin. Sally begins to question her being there, and after realizing she’s deprived herself of candy, finally decides to call it quits. Steadfast in his beliefs, Linus remains, looking to the patch knowing that soon, eventually, the Great Pumpkin will come.
I understand now why, as a kid, I did not take to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Almost everything the characters say seems geared towards adults. And I’m not talking the Disney or Shrek methodology of appealing to adults. In modern films it’s often about pop culture references; vapid, of-the-moment pointers that reward low culture trivia rather than broader life questions. In Great Pumpkin, writer (and Peanuts creator) Charles M. Schulz sets his goals much higher than Smash Mouth, instead having his characters question belief systems, law, order and even proverbs. You know Schulz’s intended audience when Linus says “you know the saying ‘Hell hath no fury’…” to which Charlie responds “Yeah!” The parts may be spoken by 11 year olds, but inside they embody the soul of the creator in a rhetoric to his generation. Proudly made outside the studio system by Director Bill Melendez, Great Pumpkin has an almost subversive maturity that is almost completely absent from any popular mass consumption animation.
At its heart, Great Pumpkin looks rather bluntly at why people believe in what they do, and why ultimately it’s important for growth. Linus is a man of logic, yet he has inexplicable faith in the idea of a Great Pumpkin. There are rational adults out there that can believe that a carpenter can shine down from heaven after death, so Santa Claus or the Great Pumpkin can’t be all that farfetched then, either, right? Determined to make adult viewers question their own belief systems, the filmmakers have Charlie ask Linus “why do you insist on believing in something that isn’t true?” to which Linus responds “when you stop believing in the man with the red suit!” Schulz and Melendez make it clear that however ludicrous, everyone has their own crazy set of beliefs, and what matters not is the truth in the belief, but instead the devotion one has in keeping their beliefs and dreams alive.
Of particular note in this regard is the ending, which, spoiler, has Linus passed out, shivering and cold, but with no Great Pumpkin in sight. Almost any other filmmaker in this position would cop out to showing the Great Pumpkin at the end of the episode, selling out harsh lessons in favor of pandering whimsy; blindly inspiring children (and adults) that regardless of the belief, if you believe enough anything can come true. Life’s obviously not a fairy tale, and Melendez and Schulz prove their sophistication as storytellers, and perhaps even philosophers, by not giving into the pressures of an easy ending. Linus does not see the Pumpkin, and instead spends the final credit sequence trying to convince Charlie that regardless the Pumpkin will be there next year. Like much of Earth’s belief in a God they can never see, Linus sticks to his scruples and the devotion inside. It’s his continuing belief that one Halloween he will see the pumpkin that gives him the strength to carry on. In 25-minutes, the filmmakers are able to make a metaphor for religion with shoddily drawn cutouts aimed at children. Not bad.
Pixar might have ended there – an ending slightly off center but still comfortably within society’s politically correct beliefs about the goodness in people and their intentions. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown keeps going, though. Charlie and Linus initially go from talking out their beliefs in the Great Pumpkin to all out bickering as Linus lets out a vicious sermon on how his staunch beliefs will ultimately lead him to salvation. The filmmakers take that opportunity to illustrate that while, yes, a belief system can be good to keep one going, it more often than not can cause conflict. Everyone believes something different, and what greater cause of war out there is religion? Rather than quietly wrap up, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown instead just fades out on Linus’s ramble, illustrating that a religious debate will always go unsolved. Perhaps the most telling quote in the entire short is when Linus notes to himself in an aside, “There are three things I have learned not to discuss with other people: religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin.”
Is there stuff there for kids? Yeah, having all the characters voiced by real children certainly gives the heavy message a more sincere and believable tone. While the dialogue is always exploring weightier subject matter, the short manages to in essence represent the identifiable customs of the scary holiday. Kids can enjoy it, but make no mistake, this is a pretty effective little lesson for adults. And again, it’s not like Disney or DreamWorks in reaffirming an adult’s intelligence by feeding them pop culture jokes. This asks a lot of eternal questions and refuses to give simple answers. Like any great, challenging work, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown demands multiple viewings. Good thing, then, that it’s inadvertently become a Halloween perennial. It’s essential.
Well, if Troll 2 can make it to Blu-ray, then I guess anything is possible. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is 44 years old and was illustrated on traditional, now archaic, animation slides. The layers are very evident here in HD, with elements, like the table during Linus’s letter writing, jumping around frame to frame. It’s also clear the frames were shot on film, with print damage, from white scratches to faint blotching, evident intermittently throughout. It might even be too clear at times, with the edges of elements, like the foreground leaves in the pumpkin patch, showing white bordering from the cut out. One scene that isn’t totally clear is the ending, which is noticeably grainier than the rest of the film. Whether this is because of the opticals put on at the end of the sequence or something else entirely, it’s a little distracting, especially since the ending is so bold. One thing that this new transfer does improve, though, are the colors, which are deep and saturated for the most part. The reds and yellows of the leaves during Charlie’s rake look very vivid, and the almost impressionist sky backdrops during many of the dusk sequences really stand out. Far from flawless, Great Pumpkin still does marginally benefit from the HD upgrade.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Crazy. John Scott Trotter’s iconic Peanuts theme is certainly the most active audio element in the film, and thankfully it transitions quite well in 5.1. That’s about the only active thing to this mix, which gets pushed to the rears to fill out the soundspace. Otherwise, it’s a front-heavy affair. The dialogue sounds clear, although the crispness to the sound is obviously lacking given the recording limitations of forty odd years ago. Don’t expect any bass or any discreet surround effects or anything, but having the most memorable element, the score, expanded and clean is about all you can really ask for for a TV episode from 1966.
You’d think there’d be more here, especially given the propensity with which this TV special has been re-released over the years, but all that’s included is a featurette on the making of that’s shorter than the 25-minute feature. “We Need a Blockbuster, Charlie Brown!” talks about the episode’s precarious beginnings as a make or break episode for the Peanuts franchise, destined to prove whether Charlie Brown’s Christmas episode was a flash in the pan or if Peanuts was instead a venerable series. Various historians as well as the director, animator and family of Charles M. Schulz share their own personal stories on the production and its enduring legacy. At one point Schulz’s son even goes on record as saying that he himself conceived of Snoopy as the flying ace that would become popular here and in hundreds of Peanuts comics. It’s a pretty fascinating and well put together featurette that, erm, carves a good picture of the beloved TV special. Too bad that’s all there is here.
In addition to Great Pumpkin, Warner has also tacked on a second special, this one later from 1981 and inevitably triter, It’s Magic, Charlie Brown. Although the same old crew that made the original Peanuts specials is aboard here, much of the inspiration is gone this time around. This is a much simpler, straightforward affair, clearly pandering exclusively for the children. The story sees Snoopy take an interest in magic, hosting his own show where he has his share of mishaps and successes. Most notably, he turns ol’ C.B. invisible. The episode is completely lacking the social insight that defined the early episodes, with the much more limited dialogue exchanges very basic and serving only of the threadbare plot. What’s worse, the episode manages to sully a few major aspects of the Peanuts universe. First off, Snoopy erroneously cuts up and destroys for good Linus’ blanket for a cheap joke. What’s worse, It’s Magic, Charlie Brown even goes as far as to payoff Peanuts’ quintessential trick by actually having Charlie Brown kick Lucy’s football while invisible. While Charlie being invisible does lend to some creative animation sequences, it’s still not nearly as accomplished as even Pumpkin was fifteen years prior. Given that Charlie has to wear the ghost costume once again, the episode does at least prove to be a good fit here on this disc. It’s an extra for a reason, though. It’s 1080p and in DTS-HD 5.1, and performs comparably to the main feature.
A DVD is also included with all of the extras found on the original release. It’s nice to see a carbon copy rather than a movie only disc or some older release packed in to liquidate overstock. If you’ve got some careless kiddies, then letting them handle the DVD while you keep the Blu-ray guarded seems like a workable option.
Pretty much a masterpiece of family features, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is still to this day a complex and challenging examination of faith, politics and humanity. Provocative and academic ideas are presented in deceptively simple framework that provides access points for even the youngest of viewers. The animation is similarly both simplistic and seasoned with qualities culled from high art. This Blu-ray presentation is about as good as one can hope, with a relatively clean and colorful 1080p image and a musically expanded DTS-HD 5.1 track. While it still deserves a lot more extras and fanfare, the short little featurette does still help encapsulate the whimsy behind the episode. The additional TV special, It’s Magic, Charlie Brown, certainly ain’t, but as an extra it functions well enough. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is one of those rare children’s animations where nostalgia need not apply for enjoyment – if anything, it’s mature ideas have aged even better today than they would have been during the Johnson administration. Pumpkin is definitely worth carving a spot in anyone’s Halloween horror slate.
One of the best Halloween specials ever! :D
I love this so much! Actually just watched it last night (not on blu but was on regular tv)
Bought this one a few weeks ago, and plan on watching it this weekend! Great stuff!!
I watch it yearly every october 31st. It's really cruel when the kids laught at Linus and Sally (blockheads!) or Charlie getting only rocks, and Linus falling asleep outside in the cold is plain mean. Still I enjoy every second of it!
One of the wife and mine's favorites. We watch it every year! So awesome you reviewed the Blu, but I'm not sure I need the upgrade. If I see it for cheap enough I may grab it.
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