Charlie Brown and his friends deliver another hit!
Three more Peanuts animated shorts, all produced by the Mendelson-Melendez production company, are featured on the newest DVD addition to the growing Peanuts Classics series.
Facts of the Case
On a scale of zero to five baseballs:
• Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown (2003)
• Charlie Brown's All Stars (1966)
• It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown (1992)
The Peanuts specials were staples of prime time television in my childhood. Every month, I could count on CBS providing us with first-rate specials based on the finest comic strips of the time—Garfield, Betty Boop, and Hagar the Horrible, to name a few. But none of them compared to the plethora of Peanuts specials and films that aired. All were originals written by creator Charles M. Schulz, who invested the specials with the same ingredients and qualities that made his strip a masterpiece of the form. Working with producer Lee Mendelson and director Bill Melendez, over thirty-five years worth of quality material was produced. Then in the winter of 2000, Charles Schulz, the genius behind Charlie Brown and the gang, died. One would assume that the specials would cease, but that would not be the case. Vowing never to use a new writer, Mendelson and Melendez decided to create new specials using Schulz's original strips as source material. To date, five new specials have been created in the last three years.
Some critics, who charge that the new shorts soil and exploit the memory of Schulz, have torn the resultant specials to shreds. I am here to dispute those charges. What Mendelson and Melendez have done is far from exploitation. They deserve credit for using Schulz's actual material rather than knockoffs penned by someone less intimately familiar with the Peanuts gang. The critics dismiss the new specials as "episodic," but Mendelson and Melendez have made no bones about that quality in interviews. Since the cartoons are based on genuine Schulz strips, they're naturally going to reflect the episodic character of the comics—it would be foolish to expect otherwise. But if the critics were willing to view these new specials with a less jaundiced eye, they just might discover that these cartoons are wonderful to watch, and contain many of the unique qualities Schulz invested in the shows he scripted during his lifetime.
Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown is far from the best Peanuts special, but it not the abomination the TV critics have made it out to be. I enjoyed the episodic structure, bringing back memories of the compilation books comprised of the classic strips that I used to devour as a child. My only complaint is that a few more characters could have been integrated into the background. Here, we get the basic quintet of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and Schroeder, with Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and Woodstock thrown in. The trademark of a Schulz special was the expansive cast of characters. Watch the two bonus specials, and you'll see others—including Franklin, PigPen, Violet, and Shermy—appear alongside the main characters. Even in the Saturday morning TV show The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, Schulz would expand the premises, often adapted from the strips, to include the other characters. Mendelson and Melendez have done this with the previous four post-Schulz specials, so it's perplexing why they chose to scale back this time. But it's a minor complaint.
Charlie Brown's All-Stars is the best of the three shows. The animation is simpler and more stripped down than the later ones would be, but what it lacks in visual detail, it more than makes up for in characterization and execution. I never knew It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown existed before I saw this disc. But that's just as well; it's merely okay, rather than memorable—a sort of remake of Charlie Brown's All-Stars. I will admit it's nice to see a twist on C.B.'s less than stellar record in baseball. Sadly, towards the final ten minutes, nothing much is done with this novel concept. The moral of the story barely saves it in the end.
The three Peanuts specials are presented in full frame transfers, remaining faithful to the original aspect ratio. What does this mean? The shorts are composed for 1.33:1, which aside from being the ratio of a standard television screen, also replicates the dimensions of a traditional comic strip panel. Of the trio of shorts offered on this disc, Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown looks the best. It's a flawless transfer that features none of the problem areas that plagued previous Peanuts releases. Colors are nice and bold; a real treat considering how much modern made-for-TV animation often looks subdued. I was pleasantly surprised with the transfer for Charlie Brown's All-Stars—the third Peanuts special following the gang's 1965 Christmas celluloid debut, All-Stars has been rarely seen over the years. Paramount has done the impossible and has restored this practically unknown cartoon to brilliant condition. There are a few scratches and specks, but they are very minimal. Colors are beautifully vivid and lively, especially for a special as old as this one. I wish I could say the same for It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown. Aside from being the weakest story of the trio, it just looks poor. Heavy grain mars the image and makes it look more ancient than the 1992 release date suggests. Lots of specks flit in and out of the image, and some odd flickering and sudden color changes occur. For example, Charlie Brown's skin tone changes from peach to blue to lilac within one single scene. The only problem is that he's not changing emotions, which such color change might indicate. My guess is that a cheaper film stock was used for this particular special.
Audio is also uneven. All three cartoons are given the Dolby Digital 2.0 surround stereo experience. The first two shorts sound terrific and fresh, with a fine balance between dialogue and music throughout. Once again, It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown provides the lion's share of the problems. It broke my heart to hear dissonance and crackling sounds on the soundtrack. This short is only 12 years old, so these problems should be nonexistent. (Though I expect such problems on the specials from the '60s and '70s, those have some of the best work, visually and aurally, on DVD. Go figure.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As usual with a Paramount disc, there are no extra features. Well, the keep case lists All-Stars and Spring Training as extras, along with the full frame presentation, English surround sound, and subtitles.
Who are they kidding? Not this Judge, that much I know for sure.
The $16.99 retail price is more than reasonable enough to merit a blind buy. Children (especially those who love Peanuts and baseball) will adore it, as will the adults who grew up on the adventures of Charlie Brown and the gang in the papers and on the tube.
All charges have been dropped. Charges against Charles Schulz and the animation team that has collaborated with him for almost forty years? Yeah, right! There isn't any evidence to merit further hearing.
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