Dr. Toon: Two for the Show
October of 2012 brought us several noteworthy events relating to mainstream American animation, both of which have cultural repercussions. One is highly positive and well-received, and the other has raised myriad points of controversy. Both involve animated children, and as usual, the meanings of these events reflect who and where we are in 2012 America.
Working for Peanuts
In 1947, cartoonist Charles Schulz was working for a small hometown newspaper in St. Paul, Minnesota. His offering was a simply-drawn panel strip called L’il Folks. It featured an eponymous little boy named Charlie Brown, although the design tended to vary. Also featured was a dog that could justifiably be called Proto-Snoopy. By 1950 the strip had run its course, and Schulz managed to sell the concept (this time with a recurring cast) to United Features Syndicate. It was UFS, not Schulz, who named the strip Peanuts, referring to the term “peanut gallery”. Schulz hated it, and from then on he controlled every aspect of the strip’s production down to the hand-lettering. On October 2, 1950, Peanuts premiered in nine newspapers. It wouldn’t stay small for very long.
During the next decade the strip, forever bereft of adults, loaded with social commentary, and unafraid to show the unmotivated cruelty of children, became iconic. What really matters to us is that Peanuts made a leap to the animated world in 1959 when the Ford Motor Company used the characters in a series of car commercials. Bill Melendez, a veteran of Disney, Warner, and UPA, animated the ads at Playhouse Pictures; it was the beginning of a relationship with Schulz’ kids that would last until 2006.
Beginning in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Melendez produced, directed, animated, and even provided voice work for 44 television specials and four theatrical features. By 2008 both he and Schulz had passed away, but the animated Peanuts legacy never did. 335 million people spanning 75 countries would not let it die. And so, through the efforts of Craig Schulz (Charles’ son) and Bryan Schulz (his grandson), Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and the entire Peanuts gallery will be returning to the big screen for the first time since 1980.
20th Century Fox/Blue Sky will be handling the animation; there had been conflicting reports about the medium of animation that will be used, but at the time of this writing, it seems that the use of CGI is expected. Perhaps the best news is that the picture is being done right. The film won’t premiere until Nov. 25th, 2015 so that it can coincide with the 65th anniversary of the strip and the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, so there is ample time to ensure the quality of the production. Craig and Bryan Schulz will handle the scriptwriting, along with Cornelius Uliano. Steve Martino, late of Ice Age: Continental Drift and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who will be directing.
Thirty-two years is a long time, especially in the history of animation. Considering the technological changes, the influence of anime, changes in the nature of entertainment (Family Guy and South Park would have been unthinkable in 1980), and changes in studio production itself, one wonders if the Peanuts gang can make the transition to feature films one more time. Can Peanuts entrance a generation raised on today’s animated fare? What sort of box office could it expect to earn?
I’m not sure it matters to the Schulz heirs. They are fulfilling a legacy.