Thursday, December 15, 2011

25 Reviews of Christmas #15 - Olden times and ancient rhymes, of love and dreams to share in "A Charlie Brown Christmas"

Welcome to the 25 Reviews of Christmas here on!  As explained in this post, I’m devoting the first 25 days of December to celebrating great Christmas movies, TV shows, specials, songs, and albums, with a Christmas-related review posting every single day for 25 days! 

I had to talk about it eventually – “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” one of the most famous specials of all time!  Remember to visit this page at any time for a collection of all 25 Reviews of Christmas articles. 

Enjoy! Review after the jump….

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is as old a TV special as any of the ones I’ve been reviewing over the past two weeks, and it has left its mark, not only on television, but on popular culture as much, if not more, as any of them.  It’s a simple story: Charlie Brown, disillusioned with the commercialization of the holidays, is tasked with directing a pageant, and the special chronicles his journey to find meaning in the season.  While the short undoubtedly has an aged quality when watching it today (albeit a very charming one), its timeless messages have kept it an annual classic.

Like the comic strip that inspired it, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” doesn’t go for laugh-out-loud gags, but subtler humor with an underlying commentary, social satire viewed through the eyes of young children.  There’s plenty to laugh at – Lucy’s psychiatric “help” cracks me up every time – but of all the Charlie Brown TV specials, “Christmas” is the most serious and, unlike many Holiday stories, actually addresses where Christmas comes from.  Charlie Brown’s struggle to remember that Christmas is more than just advertisements and presents and lights is one that many people go through at some point, especially in today’s hyper-commercialized world, and I’ve always found the journey to be fairly uplifting.

There are too many iconic moments in the special to count, but as with most people, I’m a sucker for the horrible, beaten-down tree Charlie Brown buys.  Expressing his angst over shallow Holiday aesthetics, Charlie doesn’t buy the nice, shiny, aluminum tree (do they make anything like that anymore?), but instead goes with a small, dying shrub that, to Charlie at least, feels far more honest.  The symbolism is obvious but nevertheless poignant and is the focal point of the entire short: the rejection of something commercialized for something real and meaningful.  The other kids don’t understand it, and I specifically remember not understanding this part of the short when I was younger.  The symbolism of the tree is something that grows more meaningful as one gets older, and adds a timeless quality to the special.

Linus’ recitation of the real Christmas story is as touching a reading of scripture as you’ll ever hear.  Director Bill Melendez chose to have real children voice the roles, and that choice paid off incredibly well.  Hearing a child read this verse adds an innocent, organic quality to the words that one could never get from an adult.  Narratively, Charlie’s struggle to find meaning is solved in the simplest way possible; the recitation of the story that started Christmas, a story that is often overlooked, especially in film and television.

Everything comes together spectacularly in the finale, when Charlie, having learned the story of Christmas, takes his tree home to prove that it can be as good as any other, and this is where the full symbolism of this pathetic little tree comes into play.  When the tree simply falls apart, Charlie feels alone, abandoned and hopeless, until, surprisingly, the other kids come to cheer him up.  Until this scene, the kids are all extremely cruel to Charlie (I’ve always wondered why Charlie doesn’t just run away from home), adding extra weight to their newfound kindness.  I don’t think the “Peanuts” characters have ever been known for being particularly dynamic, but the ways the characters grow, change, and come to respect one another over the course of the special is quite touching, one of the key reasons this short has endured for so long.

The animation is great, preserving the style of comic artist Charles M. Schulz while building on to what is seen in the comic strip.  I’ve already mentioned the voice acting, but I’d like to reiterate that the use of child actors really gives this or any other Charlie Brown special its own unique flavor.  The music, while simplistic, is fun and iconic and there probably aren't too many people on Earth who can’t hum the ‘dance’ tune.

Ultimately, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is simply a darn good Yuletide story about the struggle to cut through commercial clutter and find what really matters.  If certain elements have aged, that key lesson is more important than ever before. 

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