'Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown' is terrible. Will kids care?
I am a serious Peanuts aficionado. When I was a kid, I constantly visited our local library to borrow the same gloriously dogeared Peanuts collections. In high school, I wrote a ten-minute speech about the history of the American comic strip, and Peanuts took up about three of those minutes. (Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury also featured prominently. Psh, Garfield.) A few years ago, I devoured David Michaelis’ massive biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz in a couple marathon reading sessions. But my love for Charlie Brown’s melancholic circle of semi-friends goes back much longer, into the deepest primordial era of my consciousness. That’s because, before I could read Peanuts, I watched Peanuts.
There was a Charlie Brown TV special for every holiday: the touching A Charlie Brown Christmas, the madcap A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, the surrealist agnostic freakshow that is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. I learned about American history from This is America, Charlie Brown. I learned about the existence of French people from Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown. I could probably still sing the entirety of the theme song from Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown.
Now, there’s a certain branch of Peanuts fandom that doesn’t like the cartoons. The decision to have genuine kids voice the characters could occasionally be grating, adding a not-always-welcome dose of cuteness. Certainly, the cartoons were always more fantastical, more farcical, more all-around cartoony than Schulz’ wry, bleak comic strip. But I always liked how the animated specials had their own specific energy. Not to mention their own creative iconography: Thanks to the cartoons, we now have the perfect artistic representation of how adults sound to children:
So I was excited about watching the new hour-long Peanuts special, Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, which airs tonight on Fox immediately after the inaccurate-in-every-way Ice Age: Mammoth Christmas. And there are a few moments in Happiness that will give you a little giggle. The main plot focuses on Lucy’s attempts to ween Linus off of his security blanket, and there’s an extended sequence where Linus experiences blanket withdrawal. It’s funny. Except that it feels a little bit familiar.
That’s partially because Warm Blanket is based, literally word-for-word and frame-for-frame, on a random assortment of Peanuts storylines from the early days. It’s also because essentially everything in Warm Blanket has already been adapted at least a couple times for earlier Peanuts specials. Linus experienced withdrawals in 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, and again on a 1983 episode of The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. (The latter is particularly poignant, in a vaguely Lynchian way: At one point, Linus screams to Snoopy, “You made my blanket into a sportcoat? I’M GOING CRAZY!)
The difference is that those earlier adaptations did more than just translate Schulz’ strip. Animator Bill Melendez gave the cartoons their own particular G-rated funk. Melendez, alas, passed on in 2008. Warm Blanket is the first Peanuts special he had nothing to do with. Watching it feels a little bit like listening to your favorite band’s greatest hits album, as performed by a third-rate cover band. So many famous Peanuts quotes get repeated ad nauseum: “I’m not your sweet babboo,” “Isn’t he the cutest thing?” “Good grief,” “Beethoven Beethoven etc. etc.” At a certain point, most long-running media franchises hit a point where the characters stop being characters and start being reverently boring imitations of themselves. That’s how Warm Blanket feels to me: Not just bad, but inessential.
Here’s the thing, though: That was my reaction to it as someone who has loved Peanuts my whole life. But I’m at least a couple decades outside of Warm Blanket‘s target demographic of pre-adolescents who have never heard of Peanuts before. Certainly, as a primer for what made the comic strip (and the earlier Charlie Brown specials) great, Warm Blanket seems like it might intrigue children. But don’t your children deserve to be intrigued by something better? I recommend getting them one of the Peanuts collections as an early Christmas present. Or, even better, just watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which airs opposite Warm Blanket on ABC tonight.
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