In the solitary extra feature for the remastered deluxe edition of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown ("We Need a Blockbuster!"), the director/animator Bill Melendez, producer Lee Mendelson, and former CBS programming executive Fred Silverman discuss the network's demand for "another Blockbuster" from the Peanuts crew. Following the success of A Charlie Brown Christmas and the less popular Charlie Brown's All-Stars, the network wanted another prime-time animated Peanuts special, but if it didn't take off as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas, it would be the last one.
This bit of history may be surprising to those who grew up watching the special year after year. It was, in fact, so successful and widely acclaimed that CBS, and now ABC, have shown it every year around Halloween since the 1966 debut. Until watching it again in this remastered deluxe edition, it had never occurred to me that the film has a structure that allows for that kind of repeat showings. Several of the characters refer to Linus' past obsession with the Great Pumpkin, and the implication that the same thing happens every Halloween makes it easy to suspend disbelief and watch it anew every year as though you weren't already familiar with the plot and events. Maybe, just maybe, this year things will be different and the Great Pumpkin will rise out of the patch!
For those who may not be familiar with the special, the story centers on the kids' excitement and activities on Halloween. Most of them make simple costumes and go trick-or-treating, followed by a Halloween party at a classmate's house. Linus, on the other hand, plans to spend the night waiting in a pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arise and give presents to the good boys and girls who most sincerely believe in him. He is taunted by the rest of the kids, but his fervent belief in the Great Pumpkin helps him withstand the peer pressure. And, this time around, he is joined by Sally, who has a crush on him.
The ending is fairly predictable, but that isn't the point of the special. Those who are familiar with the Peanuts characters already know how it is likely to turn out, since each one's character flaws or quirks are such that we expect the inevitable and would be shocked if it went otherwise.
I don't have another version to compare this one to, but it doesn't seem to be all that much better than the slightly grainy versions I would watch on TV every year. The image quality isn't as sharp as modern animated films, and many of the blemishes of film are still visible in this digital edition. However, according to those more versed in this than I, the remastered edition is far superior in quality to the edition that was released on DVD by Paramount in 2000. You can see a few examples yourself (1, 2, and 3).
The more primitive animation is perhaps one of the charms of the Peanuts films. The simple line drawings filled in with some color and shading reflect the detail put into the newspaper comic strips, and so in that regard they stay true to the original. However, the slower pacing and minimalist imagery will make it difficult to continue to compete with the flash and action of modern animated films.
One scene that perhaps does not stand the test of time occurs during the Halloween party. Snoopy, dressed as a World War I Flying Ace, instructs Schroeder to play songs for him on the piano. Schroeder complies, and begins with a rousing tune, which makes Snoopy happy. However, the song shifts to a more melodramatic sounding tune, and Snoopy begins to weep, at which point Schroeder returns to a rousing march. This is repeated several times, and while the meaning of the scene is not lost, the "inside joke" aspect is.
When the animated short was first aired in 1966, many viewers were likely familiar with those songs and could pick up more than just the mimed actions. They knew the words and the social context for them. The generations that have watched this film since then are less and less familiar with these tunes. We get the humor of the scene, but we don't get the deeper layers, and that is a loss.
Also included on the DVD is a special from 1981 entitled It's Magic, Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown gives Snoopy his library card and tells him to go get a book to read or something instead of just sleeping and eating all day. Snoopy complies and the book he borrows is on magic tricks. After experimenting on a few with Woodstock, he decides to put on a magic show for the neighborhood kids. Some of his tricks are more successful than others, culminating in the last trick, which makes Charlie Brown disappear. However, before Snoopy can reverse the trick, a thunderstorm erupts and everyone quickly departs.
At this point, the audience (and soon everyone else) discovers that Charlie Brown is now invisible. He is understandably upset by this, but he quickly realizes some of the advantages of being invisible. Unfortunately, before he can fully enjoy them, Snoopy finds a way to return him to visibility, and once again he is left to deal with the unfortunate luck of being Charlie Brown. While not as memorable as the Great Pumpkin, It's Magic is sufficiently entertaining and a pleasant bonus for viewers who want just a little more of the Peanuts animated shorts.
With the Halloween season approaching soon, many of us will be looking forward to the rebroadcast of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and the magical way it brings back our childhood. However, in this time-shifting, too-busy-to-watch-live-TV era, your best bet is to get a copy of the Remastered Deluxe Edition. No commercials, improved visuals and sound, and you can watch it whenever you want. Can't beat that with a stick.