The approach of the holidays always puts me back in a state of mind when I was a child in the '70s and '80s. As I combed through that week's TV Guide, I was always on the lookout for prime-time cartoons. And the best specials were anything from Rankin & Bass or Peanuts. The Peanuts specials typically aired on CBS and were sponsored by Dolly Madison. Today, pop culture mainly just retains the Great Pumpkin, Thanksgiving, and Christmas specials in our collective memory. But there was a new one pracitcally every year through the two decades following the success of the Christmas special. Warner Bros. has found an interesting way to package the animated TV specials on DVD. Instead of either releasing only a 30-minute DVD or padding it with multiple specials, they are releasing one of the TV specials paired with an episode of the mid-'80s CBS Saturday morning show, "The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show." The latest DVD release is called "Happiness Is Peanuts: Snow Days" and includes the 1980 special, "You're A Good Skate, Charlie Brown," and a holiday themed episode of the TV show.
The main feature, "You're A Good Skate, Charlie Brown" is the first special of the '80s for the franchise and the 19th prime-time special featuring the Charles M. Schulz characters. Watched in order, it's interesting to see the change in focus and tone of the specials. Taken out of that context, the special might not seem up to the same standards of ones created in the '60s. The title here is misleading in that Charlie Brown makes only a bleary eyed appearance. By 1980, even the comics were focusing in on different supporting characters for longer periods of time. The title of the comic is Peanuts not Charlie Brown afterall. The story here is loosely based on a series of strips from 1974. But the story is told with the cultural backdrop of the upcoming 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. CBS, without the tie-in of a major holiday, needed a hook for the special and to piggyback on the Olympics seemed to fit the bill.
The heroine of the story is Peppermint Patty. She seems miscast as the figure skater trained by Snoopy. I've always pictured Peppermint Patty as the tough tomboy from across town that has a soft interior but doesn't know how to be feminine. Her character is perfect as Charlie Brown's baseball nemesis. Her actions in the Thanksgiving Special illustrate the way she can't communicate her crush on Charlie Brown (Chuck). In this special, we're to believe that the girl that just wants to win baseball games at all costs gets up at 4:00 a.m. to practice figure skating.
It's important to understand that Charles M. Schulz loved ice skating. There's a rink he sponsored in Santa Rosa, California. He loved hockey and figure skating. It appears over and over in his strips and is featured in a number of specials from the beginning of the Christmas special to the movies. There are little touches that show he's familiar with the subject. The fight when the hockey kids want to use the pond that Patty is practicing on has some of the best dialogue in the show. And Snoopy's coach is a dead on parody of a number of Russian figures coaches. Even the little things like the way the skaters warm up before a competition is spot on.
Peppermint Patty and Marcie have a hard time pulling through a whole 30 minute special by themselves. There is a bit of Snoopy and Woodstock comedy routines but not enough to feel like the show needed another subplot with some of our usual gang. Much of the middle act involves transforming Patty into a more feminine contestant for the figure skating competition. This middle part leaves out the best part of the strips - Patty going to get a haircut from Charlie Brown's father who doesn't realize she's a girl and gives her a boy's haircut. The competition is not nearly as exciting as it plays out and that's where the lack of subplot is missed.
Does it hold up? For the most part, yes. There's still a level of sheer fun in the piece. The figure skating is animated by people who obivously share Schultz love of the beauty of skating. But there's also a subtle transition happening. As the stories leave our core group of Charlie, Sally, Lucy and Linus - Snoopy's role becomes more and more the focus. He doesn't speak. That too often meant that someone had to talk to him and say what he was "thinking." This reliance on a non-speaking character loses some of the existenial angst that Charlie Brown brought to the early specials. There's also more of a pop culture focus happening to make the stories relevant for network airing. In this case it's a tie-in to the Olympics and before the decade has too far along we'd see "It's Flashbeagle."
The episode, "The Charlie Brown & Snoopy Show," is holiday themed. Unfortunately, those holidays include an extended Valentine's Day short. The downfall of the Saturday morning show was needing to tell Peanuts stories in 7-8 minute increments. It was like trying to fit a Peanuts peg into a Bugs Bunny hole. Bugs and friends worked great in the Saturday morning slot because they told a series of jokes-setup-jokes. Peanuts succeeds when they are allowed to tell a story on a grander scale. The characters need room to build up hope, find disappointment and then redemption. That's hard to do in 7-8 minutes.
The stories here -- "The Play," "Sweet Babboo!" and "Snoopy's Story" -- are fun but they only work because they reference us back to specials we've seen before. "The Play" is about another Christmas play although in our head's we can only see the cast dancing on-stage instead of listening to Charlie Brown's directions. The casting of Lucy as a skater in the play makes me think she needed that role in the previous special. Lucy always envisions herself the beauty queen but she meets problems with violence. She can never live up to Violet's beatiful hair. The Valentine's Day stories of "Sweet Babboo!" are tired old jokes that we've seen between Lucy and Schroeder and Linus and Sally. "Snoopy's Story" is the best but only becuase it recalls all the crazy characters that Snoopy has been over all the specials. I love Marcie telling Peppermint Patty that no one will believe her about Charlie's dog.
To portray this as a "holiday" release would be misleading. But the title does only refer to "Snow Days" so it's technically passable. The main feature is an important release and should find a good place in the hearts of true fans. It's for the fans that have gone beyond the main three specials. And the inclusion of the episode of the TV series makes the purchase price worthwhile. There's a warm place in my heart for these characters. They were there, sponsored by Dolly Madison, and interrupting regular broadcasting. But they were there in my newspaper too. Every morning with my breakfast. I hope the title is true for you too and happiness is... Peanuts.