Warner Bros. // 1965 // 25 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // October 28th, 2009
That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!
A Charlie Brown Christmas is the first, and perhaps most famous, Peanuts TV special. It's also one of the most popular Christmas programs ever, airing either once or twice every holiday season since it premiered in 1965.
What makes this distinction especially interesting is the rough-hewn -- in both sound and animation -- appearance of the cartoon. The production had a small budget, and many of the voice actors have trouble enunciating their lines. (In 1965 most animated children characters were still voiced by adults; A Charlie Brown Christmas pioneered the novel idea of children voicing children). In fact, the special's director, Bill Meléndez, has said that he is still embarrassed by some of the production quirks in the film, and the network executives who commissioned the special reportedly believed they had a flop on their hands when they first screened it.
This is not surprising, since the special has a story that is surprisingly profound and relevant, especially for a cartoon -- a bold decision that would have scared off almost any network executive. Unlike many Christmas specials that celebrate the bland good cheer of the holiday season, A Charlie Brown Christmas actually engages with the idea of why Christmas is special, instead of just affirming that it is -- and who better to question bland good cheer better than the sad sack Charlie Brown?
Charlie is disillusioned by the commercialization of Christmas, and his friends' superficial appreciation of the holiday. He seeks to find a deeper meaning of the celebration, but is only marginalized and ridiculed for the effort. Finally, in a surprisingly moving soliloquy, his friend Linus quotes from the Bible to explain to Charlie, the gang, and all of us, the profound significance of Christ's birth. Yes, this might rankle some hardcore atheists, but as religious messages go it is far from heavy handed. In fact, I would wager that the commercialization of Christmas is something that rankles secular humanists as well, and Linus's speech is certainly better the many subliminal messages that the holiday is all about spending money.
That said, though I have fallen under the Peanuts' spell, I can't help but wonder how it will be received by future generations. My young daughter is being weaned on Pixar films and the frenetic contemporary children's programming, and her eyes glazed over only a few minutes into A Charlie Brown Christmas. Maybe she just needs a few more years, or maybe she's into the whole commercialization thing.
It seems odd that a 24-minute TV special should get its own Blu-ray (couldn't they have fit the Halloween and Thanksgiving specials on here, too?). Still, this can't be considered a total cash-grab. There are two substantial features that will be of interest to any Peanuts fans. The first is the featurette "A Christmas Miracle," which details the making of the special and the many time and budget constraints it was created under. The other substantial extra is It's Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown, an animated sequel that seems to have gotten the same high-definition treatment as the original.
Speaking of which, the original shoddy production of A Charlie Brown Christmas is definitely mitigated by the 1080p/VC-1 transfer here. Ironically, it's the sharp picture that both highlights all the imperfections of the animation and presents them in bright colors and bold lines that make this a visual treat. As for the audio, this is just a recycling of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from the DVD release. The music and dialogue are still tiny and sometimes muffled, which is probably just as well, as the sound would have had to be recorded to make it pristine, and, from what I understand, Charles Schultz (creator of the Peanuts comic strip) found all of the special's imperfections endearing, as do many of its fans.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 25 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Episode
* DVD Version
* Digital Copy