For parents raised in an earlier era, today’s animated films for kids can seem formulaic and cheesy. Luckily, this Thursday will again see the broadcast of It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown at 8pm EDT on ABC.
There’s something fantastically primal about the vivid palette of early color-TV mid-60s animation. Great Pumpkin, the third Peanuts TV special, first aired in 1966, introducing audiences to one of the most iconic moments in all comic-dom: For the first time on television, Charlie Brown tries to kick a football held — and infamously yanked away — by Lucy, sketching one aspect of the gender battles more expertly than a full shelf of self-help paperbacks.
Another great moment from the special to enter the cultural lexicon is the gang’s trick-or-treat roundup: each time, the kids all gloat about their booty, while Charlie Brown mutters dejectedly, “I got a rock.” (Stupidly, both the football and rock scenes were cut as the show aired in the ’80s and ’90s; Wikipedia assures us they have been restored by ABC.) Vignettes like these elevated Peanuts from just another comic strip to a deft rendering of mid-century anxiety — childhood and adult alike.
Children can laugh at silly Linus, waiting forlornly for his much-mocked alterna-Claus to rise up out of his “sincere” pumpkin patch, while grownups will instantly recognize the allusion to heretics and unheeded prophets throughout the ages. Linus’s vigil perfectly distills Reinhold Neibuhr’s observation that “frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.” (The Great Pumpkin never shows — but then again, Santa won’t slide down the chimney, either.) And no deity ever had a cooler hymn than jazz legend Vince Guaraldi’s “The Great Pumpkin Waltz.”
Great Pumpkin dates from what writer Chris Caldwell calls Peanuts’s “golden age” — 1955 to 1970, before the strip descended into the vapid, wretched decades of “Joe Cool” and Woodstock, when Snoopy’s cutesy antics displaced Charlie Brown as the strip’s centerpiece. Caldwell’s article, “Against Snoopy,” highly critical of Schulz’s artistic choices during his long decline, is nonetheless an incisive and loving homage to “Sparky’s” initial brilliance:
Charlie Brown is optimistic enough to think he can earn a sense of self-worth, and his willingness to do so by exposing himself to fresh humiliations is the dramatic engine that drives the strip. The greatest of Charlie Brown’s virtues is his resilience, which is to say his courage. Charlie Brown is ambitious. He manages the baseball team. He’s the pitcher, not a scrub. He may be a loser, but he’s, strangely, a leader at the same time. This makes his mood swings truly bipolar in their magnificence: he vacillates not between being kinda happy and kinda unhappy, but between being a “hero” and being a “goat.”
Forty years later, Charlie Brown still helps little and big “goats” aspire to heights of heroism, and Linus still gives the most jaded non-believer a taste of true faith. Don’t miss this chance to worship in front of your TV with your kids.