Judge Dave Ryan would prefer a 22-year-old naked blonde supermodel for Christmas, preferably one carrying a briefcase full of high-denomination bills... but a dog would also be nice.
The Peanuts juggernaut returns to its roots…
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a shy, kindly man named Charles Schulz created a comic strip entitled "Peanuts." The strip, which featured young children talking like adults, grew over time into probably the most famous comic strip ever. Most Americans have at least a passing familiarity with the adventures of Charlie Brown, the boy who always seems to fail, and his pet beagle Snoopy, who lives a Walter Mitty-like fantasy life out of his backyard doghouse.
Surprisingly, when producer Lee Mendelson and producer/animator Bill Melendez, who had done a documentary on Schulz in 1963, first approached networks with the idea of bringing an animated "Peanuts" special to television, there was little interest from the networks. Even after Coca-Cola agreed to finance a Christmas-themed show in 1965, few expected it to succeed. Even Mendelson and Melendez were disappointed with the end product. But it had already been slotted into the TV schedule—for the next week—so it was too late to do anything about it.
A Charlie Brown Christmas was the second-highest rated show of that week, trailing only Bonanza. It broke every "rule" you could think to apply to a 1960s Christmas special: it directly addressed the religious aspect of Christmas; it used real children (instead of adult actors) as the voices of the "Peanuts" characters; it had an original jazz score composed by San Francisco jazz hipster legend Vince Guaraldi. But it was also simple, elegant, and touching in its message: the true spirit of Christmas is friendship and goodwill towards others. Few are now willing to debate the assertion that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the best Christmas special ever made.
Dozens of "Peanuts" specials, and a handful of feature motion pictures, have followed in the wake of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Some were seasonal specials; others just served to get the "Peanuts" characters into a new story. Even the death of Charles Shultz (ironically, just after he had retired from drawing the "Peanuts" comic strip) didn't slow things down. "Peanuts," and its gentle, non-offensive humor, are timeless; there's no compelling reason to stop now. In 2003, Mendelson and Melendez returned to the holiday that first put the specials on the map with I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown. Paramount has now released this contemporary special on DVD, with a pair of valuable bonuses to boot. Is it as good as A Charlie Brown Christmas? No. But it's a solid, witty, fun special that should keep both kids and adults entertained.
The eponymous dog-wanter in this tale is Rerun, the little brother of Linus and Lucy van Pelt, first introduced to the strip in 1973. Rerun is a kindergartener, but one with a wry and ironic sense of humor. He's more talkative than his older brother, but not as fussy or crabby as his older sister. All he wants for Christmas is a dog, any dog, to play with. (He's sick of having to ask Charlie Brown if Snoopy wants to play.) Unfortunately, Mom van Pelt doesn't want a dog, and denies his request. Rerun takes matters into his own hands, and asks Snoopy to write his brother Spike (who lives in the desert) and invite him to come visit, whereupon Rerun can adopt him. Wacky hijinks ensue.
The story in I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is really just a loose amalgamation of various comic strip storylines, each of which was generally played out over a week of daily strips (or a single Sunday strip). This isn't really a bad thing; several of the mini-stories are quite funny. It just makes the show seem more like a series of "bits" from comedians (who happen to be children) than a coherent monolithic tale. Kids probably won't care—the stories aren't any longer than the typical tyke's attention span to begin with. Adults, though, might find it a bit off-putting at first.
Jazz pianist David Benoit takes on the job of musical director for this feature. It's great that the "Peanuts" crew got an established, reputable jazz man to fill the gigantic shoes of Vince Guaraldi…but I've got to nitpick him a bit. His style is a tad more aggressive than Guaraldi's; and while his performances are skillful and well-executed, I still long for Guaraldi's originals. Picture and sound are par for the course—good, vivid colors on the animation, and a solid stereo audio track.
The feature clocks in at a trim 42 minutes, which would puff out to an hour with commercials added. But another half hour of extras are included with the package. The first is basically a mini-feature, "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales." About 15 minutes long, it's basically exactly the same as the feature in content, but the vignettes here don't tie in to the Rerun story. (And it would have been awkward to force them into the main feature, which probably explains how they wound up in a separate extra.)
The second extra is a documentary on the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was originally paired with that show on television in 2002. Hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, the documentary tells the story of how "Peanuts" came to television. It's an interesting tale, with good vintage footage (much of it taken from the above-mentioned Mendelson/Melendez Shultz documentary, A Boy Named Charlie Brown). It, too, clocks in at roughly 15 minutes.
When you add in the two decent extras, I Want A Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown turns out to be a pretty nice Christmas package for families. It's only an average offering by "Peanuts" standards, but that still makes it better than a lot of animated family entertainment out there.
Plus, you get to see Snoopy's entire family (except for his AWOL sister Belle)!
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• Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales
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