Who Are You, Charlie Brown?


Who do you THINK you are, Charlie Brown?

(2021) Documentary (Apple Plus) Charles M. Schulz, Lupita Nyong’o (narrator), Lynn Johnston, Chip Kidd, Karen Johnson, Jean Schulz, Tyler James Nathan (voice), Terry McGurrin (voice), Isabella Leo (voice), Holly Gorski (voice), Hattie Kragten (voice), Isis Moore (voice), Wyatt White (voice), Christian Dal Dosso (voice), Jacob Soley (voice), Matthew Mucci (voice), Natasha Nathan (voice). Directed by Michael Bonfiglio

 
Since 1951, Charlie Brown, his dog Snoopy and his sister Sally, classmate Lucy van Pelt and her brother Linus as well as Schroder, Pppermint Patty, Franklin and Pigpen have all delighted and informed the childhood of generations. The simplicity and genuine love in the character brings instant nostalgia whenever we consider Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown at the last moment, Snoopy winning a Christmas decoration contest for his doghouse or Linus and his security blanket.

Framed by new animation that has Charlie Brown flummoxed by an assignment at school to write an essay about who he is, this 54-minute-long documentary traces the development of the Peanuts comic strip from its very beginnings, and of course the life of its creator, Charles M. Schulz. There are plenty of archival interviews with Schulz as well as contemporary interviews with those who knew him including his widow Jean, and friend and cartoonist Lynn Johnston who looked up to him as a mentor. Actress Lupita Nyong’o provides narration.

It is perhaps the world’s worst-kept secret that Charlie Brown is essentially Schulz; along with sharing the same first name they also shared many of the same insecurities. Although the documentary doesn’t really explore this aspect, in many ways Schulz wrote the strip as a form of therapy to deal with his own doubts and fears.

There are some celebrity interviews including Billie Jean King (who inspired the creation of Peppermint Patty), filmmakers Paul Feig and Kevin Smith, actress Drew Barrymore, humorist Ira Glass, television personality Al Roker and a few young actors who will be more familiar to pre-teens than to their parents.

AppleTV Plus has become the literal custodian of the Peanuts filmed legacy including all of their beloved TV holiday specials (what’s Halloween without It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or Christmas without A Charlie Brown Christmas?) as well as new material like The Snoopy Show. In some ways, the documentary is an advertisement for the material AppleTV Plus has available and may seem a bit disingenuous in that regard, but to their credit, little of the new material is mentioned here.

It’s hard not to get the warm fuzzies from a show like this. Certainly, we can admire Schulz’ stand when Southern newspapers threatened to drop the strip after he introduced Franlin, an African-American character – and we can also temper that with the understanding that it took Schulz a while to finally add the character to the strip, despite many appeals to do so. It’s also nice to see how elements of Schulz’ own life made their way into the strip (Sally’s pet name for the unrequited focus of her affection, Linus – “My sweet Baboo” – is what Jean used to call her husband). This isn’t going to go down as a definitive biography on Schulz or a definitive analysis of his creation – that would take much longer than the time allotted here, but for beginners who are curious about the strip or for those who want to introduce their kids or grandkids – or great-grandkids – to the strip, this is a nice way to do so.

REASONS TO SEE: Evokes everyone’s childhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more detail.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Peanuts comic strip was initially titled Li’l Folks, but concerns about copyright issues with a strip created by Tack Knight in the 1930s called Little Folks led Schulz to change the title of his creation.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Apple Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet,
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Grief! The Story of Charles M. Schulz
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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