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Book Review - 'The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials'

Charles Solomon’s new book provides an extensive history of the beloved Peanuts franchise’s 46 year history of TV specials and theatrical features.

All images courtesy of Chronicle Books.

The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials, by Charles Solomon.  Foreword by Lee Mendelson. San Francisco, Chronicle Books, November 2012, hardcover $45.00 (192 pages).

This coffee-table art book differs significantly from other coffee-table art books on the making of an animated film.  They are about single features, are published at the time of the film’s release, and are made with full access to all of the production graphics. The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation covers forty-five TV specials and theatrical features produced over a forty-six-year period, from 1965 to 2011.  It necessarily contains less about any particular Peanuts TV or theatrical film, but it is an excellent overview of the entire series.

Charles Solomon says in the Acknowledgments, “When Emily Haynes called to suggest this book, I was surprised to discover how little has been written about the beloved Peanuts specials.  I grew up watching them, as did almost everyone I know.” (p. 190)  So did today’s notable animation and comic book producers whom Solomon quotes throughout this book.  “Jef Mallett, the creator of the comic strip Frazz, says, ‘The Peanuts specials were your indication that the holidays had arrived.  When It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown [1966] and A Charlie Brown Christmas came on, you knew the holiday season had arrived, and it was a very happy time indeed.’

Production cels from He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown, 1968.

“Pete Docter, the Oscar-winning director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, agrees.  ‘The two I always tried to see were the Christmas special and It’s the Great Pumpkin.  They would be on at set times, and I demanded my parents rearrange our social calendar so we could be home then.  Because they were just on once, then you had to wait until next year.’” (pgs. 11-12)

Other industry notables discuss technical or creative aspects of the specials, not just once but many times throughout the book.  “Pixar story artist Jeff Pidgeon comments, ‘A strength of the strip has always been that it presented very sophisticated ideas and points of view in a very simple way, and the specials reflect that beautifully.  Mendelson and Melendez were really great not to let their egos get in the way.  They let the strip maintain its character, its integrity, and its approach in animation.’” (p. 12)  Some of the many other notables who express their admiration for the specials are Pixar director Andrew Stanton, director of The Simpsons Movie David Silverman, Disney animators and art directors Eric Goldberg, Dave Pruiksma, Dale Baer, and Paul Felix, and newspaper cartoonists Lynn Johnston (For Better or For Worse) and Patrick McDonnell (Mutts). 

Storyboards of Lucy arm wrestling “The Masked Marvel” echo Schulz’s original strips. Artist unknown. From It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown, 1969.

From A Boy Named Charlie Brown, 1969, Dan Spille, graphite, watercolor, gouache.

Schulz and Melendez are dead now.  Bill Littlejohn, a lead animator on the series, was interviewed just before he died.  Solomon quotes at length many of the surviving crew, from Phil Roman, the director of 14 of the specials, to background artist Dean Spille, then-child voice actors Sally Dryer and Stephen Shea, and background music composer Dave Benoit.  It is evident from their commentary that working on the Peanuts specials was not just another animation-industry job to them; it was a pleasure.

The Peanuts TV specials and the movies were made by a trio who became close friends and worked together for 35 years:  Charles Schulz (known as “Sparky” to everyone), the writer and artist of the newspaper strip, who came up with or approved the concepts for the films; Lee Mendelson, the executive producer of the films (who wrote the Foreword to this book); and Bill Melendez, the head of the Bill Melendez Productions animation studio and director of most of the films.  When Schulz died in 2000, the other two developed future specials upon story sequences from the newspaper strip, so they were still Schulz’s concepts.  Melendez died in 2008.  The only special since then was the 2011 Happiness is a Warm Blanket, co-written by Schulz’s son Craig Schulz with newspaper strip creator Stephan Pastis (Pearls Before Swine), based upon two early 1960s sequences from the Peanuts strip, and animated by the WildBrain studio which sent much of the animation to South Korea for production.  “Some of the animation was done in the United States […]  But one reason the directors agreed to work on the project was to get the chance to animate the characters they had watched and loved for so many years.”  (p. 45) 

A print ad showing the gang running a movie theater from A Boy Named Charlie

Brown, 1969.

Bill Melendez at his drafting table.

The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation is broadly divided into two sections.  From the Strip to the Screen, the Introduction (which is only a page or two in most books), is forty-two pages.  Most of Solomon’s narrative history of the specials is here, as are photographs of the lead creators and the production crew, publicity art, music record jackets, and the like.  Practically all the information on Vince Guaraldi’s jazz music for the first specials is here.  The rest of the book, over a hundred pages, is devoted to the visuals of the specials, presented by decade:  The ‘50s and ‘60s; The ‘70s; The ‘80s; The ‘90s; and After Sparky: 2000 & Beyond.  These are predominantly illustrations; concept art, production sketches, shooting scripts, model sheets, background paintings, and production cels.  There are a bibliography and an index.

From Snoopy: The Musical, 1988, Bill Littlejohn,

graphite.

Will there be further specials?  “Although all the participants agree that future animation projects are possible, everyone expresses concern about preserving the integrity of Schulz’s legacy.” (p. 46)  Craig Schulz feels like the keeper of a flame that is slowly guttering out, and worries that future producers interested only in cashing in on the popularity of the Peanuts franchise will not understand or care about Schulz’s integrity.  “‘I think it’s sad for the family to see that happen, but the reality is, my dad’s gone.  It’s been ten years, but the public still loves his work.’” (ibid.)

Considering the popularity of the Peanuts animation on TV and in DVDs, and the dearth of printed information about them, The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials is one book that animation fans and publiclibraries have to have!

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatricalrerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first Americanfan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation WorldMagazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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