Saturday, 22 March 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - You're Computer Animated, Charlie Brown!

I remember it plain as day. I'm assuming it was 1980, when Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don't Come Back!) was first released. My mom was trying to convince me to watch a fun kids movie, but I had a crying fit outside of Clear Lake's Park Theatre, because I was concerned there was a fire on the movie poster. I think I was generally scared of fire around that time, and I guess I didn't want to see Charlie Brown in peril like that. Didn't seem like a good time to me. So I had a crying fit, and my mom was suitably embarrassed. 

Fast forward 30 decades, and now I'm scared to watch the new Peanuts film, which just received a teaser trailer last Tuesday. Assuming you've already seen it? 

Peanuts is sacred to Charles M. Schulz fans, so I doubt I'm alone in fearing this. And what if there's a fire in it? (starts crying)

I'm frightened because Peanuts has always only had one voice, and it was the inner anguish and insecurities channelled through Schulz that made it register. His foibles, his longing, his world-view - these were uniquely his own. And it's hard to imagine a group of people trying to copy that. Why would you even want to put yourself through that dysfunction?

Two of the new project writers share Schulz's bloodline - Craig Schulz (Sparky's son) and Bryan Schulz (Sparky's grandson). It's a connection that instills some faith in the project, but if you're like me, you won't believe it until you see it. 

I told my friend, Troy, the other day that Craig's connection to one of the more recent Peanuts TV specials had given me hope. If you haven't watched 2011's Happiness Is A Warm Blanket, you're really missing out. Craig was a co-writer on that project, and it is as close as you could possibly come to a classic Peanuts TV special. It was also probably aided by the fact that much of the storyline was based on material that Sparky had originally written for his comic strip. But what was also jarringly refreshing was the voicework, which hadn't sounded right for many years. And the animation was reminiscent of Bill Melendez's early offerings. 

Bill Melendez is the main reason why I want a moustache, and why I'm so skeptical to see this new Peanuts movie. He set the tone for Charlie Brown, mostly because he had to.

"One thing that helped us in a negative fashion was the terrible budgets", he says in a quote from the excellent book "The Art And Making Of Peanuts Animation". "We were forced to do the best we could within those dumb budgets. Had we started from the very beginning using computers and trying to animate these characters as close to real-life animation as possible, it would have been a disaster."

It's interesting he says that, because computer animation is all about perfection. Craig Schulz in a recent interview with USA Today was commenting on how 3D was finally going to allow us to see Snoopy's fur. Well...I guess it's nice to know there's a reason why we're charged an additional $3 to see the movie, but I still don't think it's necessary. The reason Melendez's work is so perfect is because it's minimalist, like Schulz's comic art. Mind you, kids who'll be watching this won't be comparing it to the comic strip or any other previous incarnation of Peanuts. They'll be comparing it to the CG movies they watched this year. 

I will be very surprised if they can make the animation stand out using CG. All of the Peanuts specials had moments of experimentation - with timing, backgrounds, character design, etc. I doubt we'll see anything quite that abstract in the new movie. 

Some of my favourite parts in the previous Peanuts films are those quick scenes of experimentation. 

Check out this moment from the first Peanuts feature film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), where Snoopy gets very patriotic.

Or how about this unexpectedly artful and educational Beethoven break with Schroeder?

The title sequence from the second Peanuts feature film called Snoopy Come Home (1972) is also inventive.

I've included a link to watch the whole movie below. It's the best of all the feature films in my mind. If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, at least fast forward to the 14:30 mark and watch the next 4 1/2 minutes from there. It is the best and funniest Peanuts animation ever made, in which Snoopy is a total jerk and picks fights with Linus and Lucy. Animator Bill Littlejohn, an unsung hero in the pre-2000 Peanuts world, cranks out some incredibly funny drawings - fascinating in the way he can squash and stretch Schulz's style, without losing the basic roots.

Like most cartoons of the time, the animation became more standardized by the time Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977) and Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don't Come Back!) came out. Or at least I think it did. There's far too much peril in those movies for me, thanks! (stars crying) But I did manage to muster up the courage to watch this funny tennis sequence in Bon Voyage, which features some interesting background changes.

Snoopy's more manic tendencies were not only enhanced by Bill Melendez's direction, but also by his voice, which was used for both Snoopy and Woodstock in sped up bursts of gibberish or laughter. I was encouraged to read that archived clips of Melendez will be used for both characters in the new Peanuts film. It's a weird series of sounds that you'd think would be easy to replicate, but I guess not. For all of the negative things I say about CG, it's nice that computers will still allow Melendez's character to live on - albeit in a different, hairier, unnecessarily 3-dimensional form. 

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