Hard Truths Allowed
The Upliftingly Melancholic Full-Length Peanuts Movie, Snoopy Come Home.
In the set-apart suburbia of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, a little ebullience goes a long way given that the dominant emotional strain is one of melancholia. Our lives may be like this as well, in that they’re not full-on ravers of constant excitement and bliss. We think far more than we speak, absorb more than we dish out. How well we do that absorbing—and what we dish out in following—determines how efficacious—and healthy—we are as people, which is something that Schulz, born November 26, 1922, understood better than most, and perhaps better than anyone who putatively made cartoons for children that were always really for adults, too.
The thinking is that melancholia is necessarily bad, but I prefer to look at it as a penetrating lens that best reminds us of what is really important. We speak of how the little things matter, but Schulz understood that it’s the intimate things that truly matter most. They’re not measured in terms of size, but rather via depth and honesty.
These days, most people know the TV specials best. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring the series’ original and best voice actors, are staples that continue to be handed down generation to generation, viewing pleasures on which Boomers, Millennials, newly-minted four-year-olds, and everyone in-between can vouch for with similar ardor. To dislike them is akin to pushing back on Christmas or the Beatles. Yes, they’re clever—you always notice pleasing details of legitimate wit that you haven’t previously with the latest viewing—and the animation—dubbed in the credits as graphic blandishment—doesn’t look like any you’ll see anywhere else. In their way, a frame of Peanuts animation is as stylistically tell-tale as a Joseph Cornell box.
But these are works that all but sit down and level with us, a good friend who is a go-to for perceptive counsel. There’s a trick, for instance, that I’ve learned with writing: Create something for one single person, with only them in mind, and if you do it as well as possible, you’ll create something for everyone. The best animated Peanuts specials feel as though they operate under this premise. One in particular—which isn’t technically a special—opens up a vein unlike any of the others, which sounds grim, but a little bloodletting isn’t always bad in this world where Linus—the perspicacious friend we all wish we had, regardless of our age—walks at our side, as you know if you’ve ever watched feature-length, Snoopy Come Home, released in August 1972.
It’s odd for us now to think of heading to the movie theater for a proper Peanuts gang movie, but that’s how it went down, and I recall seeing the picture later because it always seemed to circle back for matinee screenings during the summer dog days, when the novelty of your freedom (“School is no more!”) had worn off, and big developments gathered like clouds thick with rain on the horizon (A new school year is coming!).
The film is frequently overlooked. People know of it without having seen it because of its famous—or infamous—“No Dogs Allowed” line/theme/fanfare, or recall it to mind as they would the memory of a nightmare they can’t remember in full. Plus, it bombed. Critics dug the picture, but audiences stayed away, which has to do, I think, with an ideal union of art form and setting, or of heart and hearth. Peanuts was perfect for TV, which isn’t to say it couldn’t work on the big screen, only no one thought of it that way. Those first specials were so indelible and such a part of the holiday viewing experience in the safety and comfort of the home, that the living room itself became part of the proceedings, and the build-up of anticipation when the next year rolled around. TV art and home life were stitched together. That’s how we consume these Peanuts, and it mostly always has been.
Snoopy Come Home is hilarious, but it’s also a weeper. Everybody’s favorite beagle, who enjoys a rich life of bounding independence—we see him, for instance, coming home late after a date with Peppermint Patty at the shore—is tugged away from the community he’s built for himself, and helped build, by his original owner, a girl named Lila who languishes sick in a hospital.
After the original cast, these are the voice actors who do these characters the most justice. Stephen Shea carries on as Linus where his brother Christopher stepped off. Chad Weber is a believable, empathy-fostering Charlie Brown, a character whose depths, anxieties, and hopes are conveyed in varying verbal accents and beats. Robin Kohn is an ideal Lucy, with the requisite blend of cattiness, perspective, sarcasm, and heart. Chris De Faria makes Peppermint Patty less annoying than she tends to be, akin to a spirited leader who binds a group together with enthusiasm, which is tantamount to vision when you’re a kid, and probably for us adults, too.
You’d never expect to be able to say that a Peanuts animated film is a parable for the African American experience, but such was Snoopy Come Home, an irony considering how in recent years Charles Schulz has been criticized for the gang’s lack of diversity, with Franklin—introduced in the strip in 1968—being the sole Black character.
The reasons were always benign, despite whatever the most captious individual suggests. People live where they live. Not all communities are veritable rainbows of color. And Schulz said that he didn’t want to be disrespectful, that he worked from within the province of his own experiences, and race was not something he could live with getting wrong.
Hard to fault him on that score, and Franklin is not present in Snoopy Come Home, but neither is Pig-Pen. It’s the core group, the inner circle, because this is a work of maximum interiority for exterior dissemination. There are certain films you can watch and you know they meant a lot to the people who made them, that they had to make them. They have a visceral authenticity. That doesn’t mean they’re transposed autobiography—just that they come from a place that is real and thus resonate as real in our assorted, scattered locales of existence, both outside and in.
Snoopy was a dog who always loved his distinctly human freedoms. That’s why he’s a canine mirth factory. He begins writing books (“It was a dark and story night”) he never finishes, decks out his dog house in ostentatious glitz, indulges his passion for aviation history, wears his dog dish for a natty hat, and dances on pianos. If a pet is going to be more than a pet in any show, film, book, it has to reflect back on us, tilt the angle of insight into the human condition. Dogs are ace at this, and Snoopy is the cartoon master. But his beloved freedoms are encroached upon. He’s not allowed at the library or to ride the bus, and over and over again we see a sign reading No Dogs Allowed,” accompanied by a sung lyric—in this Paul Robeson-type voice—that adds a second line of, “You’re not our crowd.”
The reference is to the Civil Rights Movement—or, rather, why it was necessary. Snoopy withstands indignity upon indignity. His very personage—for this is the person version of a dog—changes. There’s this bizarre—but fitting—physical confrontation with Linus of all people, and the latter beats the hell out of Snoopy, which I don’t think is an exaggeration, even if it wasn’t Linus’s intent. You saw what you just saw, but you still doubt that you did, as with a fight between brothers.