Friday, July 24, 2015

Snoopy Come Home (1972) & Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977)

          Introduced in 1950, Charles M. Schulz’s newspaper strip Peanuts was a beloved institution by the time the franchise expanded to include animated TV specials in the ’60s. The brand grew further with the release of A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), the first in a series of animated theatrical features that ran in tandem with the ongoing TV specials. The second feature, Snoopy Come Home, is noteworthy in that it forefronts the canine character Snoopy, known to millions as the intelligent and resourceful companion to kindhearted but long-suffering franchise protagonist Charlie Brown. Despite suffering from a questionable musical score—more on that later—Snoopy Come Home epitomizes many of the best qualities in Schulz’s fictional universe.
          Directed by Bill Meléndez, who helmed most of the classics Peanuts specials, Snoopy Come Home begins with vignettes juxtaposing the misadventures of the Peanuts gang with scenes in which Snoopy gets the sense that he’s no longer needed. The beagle is particularly incensed by the intrusion of “No Dogs Allowed” signs throughout his community, provoking Snoopy to whip out his familiar typewriter and pen irate letters to local officials. Later, Snoopy receives word that his former owner, a young girl named Lila, has been hospitalized and wants to see her old pal. Snoopy announces his plans to leave Charlie Brown’s home, which occasions a tear-filled going-away party—easily one of the saddest scenes ever presented in a Peanuts movie or special. Will Snoopy come home? Even if the answer to that question is never in doubt, the movie is full of teachable and tender moments, as well as the gentle humor for which Peanuts is justly famous. In fact, had this storyline been employed for a TV special, Snoopy Come Home could have become a classic. Stretched to feature length, the piece has a hit-and-miss feel.
          For every sweet scene depicting the interaction between Snoopy and humans, there’s a dreary montage set to one of the many songs composed for the film by Richard and Robert Sherman, the songwriting duo famous for Mary Poppins (1964) and other Disney musicals. Gifted as they are at crafting catchy lyrics and melodies, the Shermans often can’t resist maudlin extremes. (Actual lyric: “Happy laughter is contagious!”) There’s a huge gulf between the juvenile quality of the Shermans’ songs and the sophistication of Schulz’s script. (While playing Monopoly, the formidable Lucy Van Pelt proclaims, “I’m going to destroy you economically, Charlie Brown!”) Ultimately, the good stuff in Snoopy Come Home outweighs the dubious stuff, especially because the movie perfectly captures what melancholy feels like.
          The next Peanuts feature, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown, lacks the emotional high points of its predecessor. A lighthearted adventure romp filled with character-driven humor, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown features the Peanuts gang attending a summer camp and participating in a lengthy rafting race. Once the race begins, the Peanuts boys occupy one raft, the Peanuts girls pilot another one, a gang of grade-school bullies rides in a third raft, and Snoopy and his avian pal, Woodstock, man the final raft. Once again written by Schulz and directed by Meléndez, the picture has sensitivity and warmth, portraying bullies as losers whose cravenness will ultimately lead to their undoing, and the story is told from a kids’-eye-view perspective. The vignettes with Snoopy sharing wilderness adventures with Woodstock are particularly droll—at one point, Woodstock climbs atop a sleeping, snow-covered Snoopy’s nose and builds a ski resort before Snoopy wakes. Similarly, the running gag about iron-willed Peppermint Patty ruling the Peanuts ladies by faux democracy (“All right, Marcy, time for the secret ballots!”) is quite sly. Yet the storyline is predictable and the villains are simplistic, so even though Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown is slicker, Snoopy Come Home has more impact.
          After the 1980 feature Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!) completed the original Schulz/Meléndez theatrical cycle, the franchise soldiered on with decades of TV specials, and then a brand-new theatrical feature, the CGI-rendered The Peanuts Movie, debuted in 2015.

Snoopy Come Home: GROOVY
Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown: FUNKY

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