It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown originally aired all the way back in 1966 and is second only to the sainted Christmas pageant in Charles M. Schulz’s great seasonal Peanuts pantheon.
Though its appeal is timeless, you also wouldn’t mistake this generally quiet, episodic little masterpiece for a cartoon made today: real children perform as the child-characters and they speak less fluently and more deliberately than the adults who usually play kids in animated series today. In fact, everything moves more naturalistically than the music-video and video game-inspired, quick cutting, keep things jumping, slam bam NOISY wow of today’s animated series (many of which I love). It’s just a different kind of storytelling, and one that requires some adjustment for kids raised on Fairly Odd Parents, SpongeBob, Jimmy Neutron and The Simpsons.
We begin with the irresistible rolling left-hand piano bassline of Vince Guaraldi’s indelible “Linus and Lucy” (Guaraldi’s melodic, hooky, cool but rhythmically insistent music is the secret weapon of the entire Peanuts animated series, notably reviewed by El Bicho here), aptly named because as the tune unfolds, the title characters, an odd couple brother and sister (as are Charlie Brown and the precocious, litigious Sally) stroll through a gorgeous leaf-strewn autumnal landscape out to the pumpkin patch in pursuit of the perfect orange orb, a pumpkin Lucy decides must surpass their combined weight, and which Linus, under Lucy’s direction of course, must navigate back home. Lucy brandishes a butcher knife and impales the unfortunate vegetable savagely- Linus recoils in horror. A novel’s worth of relationship is conveyed wordlessly in a few perfect animated moments before the credits even roll.
Linus and Lucy each then trouble poor Charlie Brown: Linus without malace aforethought by jumping onto his just-raked pile of leaves, Lucy with elaborate premeditation, inducing him to kick the phantom football one more time via the ruse of a “signed document,” which, she she informs him ex post facto as he lies flat on his back, wasn’t notarized.
We shift to Linus — the spiritual and moral center of the Peanuts milieu, recall his nativity speech in the Christmas special — writing a letter to the Great Pumpkin, informing said Halloween apparition of his devotion and intention to wait patiently in the sacred patch, once again, for the Pumpkin’s heretofore elusive affirmation in the form of gifts, or at least a visible manifestation.
Here is Faith — the vulnerable declaration of what we believe will be if we only commit fully and sincerely enough — at its most archetypal and poignant.
To his surprise and joy, Charlie Brown is invited, apparently accidentally, to the gang’s Halloween party. After they trick or treat — Charlie’s dignity is assaulted door after door as each of his companions squeals with confection-gifted glee and he sighs “I got a rock” — and gather for the evening’s gala, Linus and his alternately dubious and fiercely protective paramour Sally await the Great Pumpkin’s arrival in the Patch of Dreams.
But unlike Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan in an Iowa corn field, or George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward awaiting Moriarty, these two young believers are NOT rewarded — to Schultz’s eternal credit, for such faith is almost never unambiguously confirmed in this world — and Sally wrathfully abandons Linus to his delusions and the cold, viney earth.
A beautiful, merciful touch has Lucy awakening to an alam in the middle of the night, trudging out to her brother’s own Calvary, leading him without word of recrimination back to the warmth of home and hearth, and tucking him gently, every inch the loving Big Sister.
This is not a world of 2-D stereotypes, but a small corner of living, breathing humanity rendered with genius, and that is why we cling to it so, even now.
It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown also airs tomorrow night, Tuesday October 26, on ABC.