A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN (1969) – Breezy “Peanuts” movie debut

I have enjoyed the “Peanuts” comic strip ever since I was a kid. But when it comes to the TV-special and movie adaptations, I feel they got talkier and less charming as they went along. (I remember taking my nephew to see Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!) when it first came out in 1980 and being thoroughly unimpressed with it even back then.)

Happily, there is one movie that is just as good as my 8-year-old self remembered it to be — the first “Peanuts” theatrical film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Its soufflĂ©-light plot is nevertheless substantial enough to make a “Peanuts” fan smile all throughout the movie, not to mention servicing a few fancy-shmancy animation sequences of the kind you rarely found in kids’ films after 1969.

(From here on in, this review is one big ol’ SPOILER ALERT. If you’re that concerned about it, watch the movie first before reading on. [As of this writing, the movie is available for viewing at Hulu.])

For those unfamiliar with the “Peanuts” milieu, the movie’s first half-hour is almost an origin story, showing us self-denigrating Charlie Brown from every possible angle — can’t fly a kite, can’t win a ball game, just plain can’t catch a break. Then Charlie hears about a spelling bee that is to take place at school that day, and despite several rounds of discouragement from his (mostly female) classmates, Charlie goes on to win the spelling bee at the classroom- and school-wide levels.

(As a former spelling bee champion myself, I regret to inform that for the sake of streamlining the plot, the movie’s makers left out the all-important state level of the bee, going straight to the national level instead.)

It is at this point, sadly, that the movie dumps its weakest plot point on us. As everyone sees Charlie off at the bus depot, Linus gives Charlie his security blanket as a gesture of friendship. Any “Peanuts” fan who knows anything about Linus knows that he goes through withdrawal after more than a day without the blanket.

Soon enough, blanket junkie Linus commandeers Snoopy’s help to go find Charlie Brown in New York City and demand his blanket back. The most unintentionally funny part of the movie is how little attention anyone other than Linus pays to finding the blanket. Charlie Brown forgot where he left it and is too preoccupied with the spelling bee to care. Snoopy happens across an empty Rockefeller Center at night and is far more interested in indulging his skating fantasy than in helping Linus detox.

Other than this minor aberration, though, the movie stays quite true to the charms of the original comic strip. This includes the songs by Rod McKuen, who at the time of the movie’s release was the troubadour of the 1970’s. Unfortunately, McKuen’s score, like his many books of poems, drew much criticism at the time for being overbaked. I think they perfectly fit the “Peanuts” style, and in any case, he wrote only three songs for the movie, so he’s pretty much off the soundtrack before he has much of a chance to offend. (For my money, I found the Sherman Bros.’ songs for this movie’s follow-up film, Snoopy, Come Home, to be far more repetitive and banal.)

It’s always nice to find that a story you remember from childhood still holds up. A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a charming example.