Sunday, 5 April 2015

It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown

Where Beagles Dare

It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
USA 1974 
Directed by Phil Roman
Firefly Entertainment DVD Region 2

This review is almost self defeating in a way because... well what can you say about one of the classic cartoon shorts of the 20th Century? This is another in a number of “Charlie Brown Specials” which came out over the years, following on from the totally amazing A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965. It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown is definitely one of my all time favourites and, probably, the one I know the best, I think... since I try to watch it every Easter, if I can.

Sure, it’s not particularly opulent in terms of its animation, with a lot of static characters on screen sometimes while there is movement on only one person and maybe a bit of background detail coming to life... but they’re definitely not as bad as a lot of cheap 1970s TV animation and you can tell that there’s a lot of love gone into these ones. Stylistically, too, I think the static nature of some of the frames matches the genesis of the original Peanuts - featuring Good O’l Charlie Brown strip and I’ve always thought these have something over a lot of the other cartoons which were being produced in this period of television history. Also, it’s hard to get Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang wrong when they’re all based on the original writings of Charles M. Schulz, who clearly must have had a lot to do with these cartoon specials, I think.

Bearing in mind that the cartoon is only around 25 mins in length, you’ve got to admire the amount of different running jokes and follow on scenes inherent in the episode and the structure of this one is perfect. You have the main “Easter Beagle is coming” plot which is set up by Linus telling everybody about it, tying in to the famous, annual Great Pumpkin debacle of Halloween. This runs through the whole show... which is quite clever because the actual machinations to get to this event actually taking place are only revealed, and indeed only actually happen, in the scene before the actual resolution of it. That is to say, we see ‘the Easter Beagle’ acquiring his painted eggs in the scene before he makes his grand entrance and distributes them.

But, quite apart from that main narrative point, we have so many little sub stories to get through, running parallel to the main plot, that it’s a wonder the running time is so short. We have the whole thing with Woodstock’s inadequate nest and the acquisition of, not one but two, new homes for him. We have various scenes of Peppermint Patty failing, quite spectacularly in some cases, to show her friend Marcie how to boil and paint eggs for Easter. We have assorted character building with a shopping expedition to buy Sally some new shoes for Easter and a wealth of scenes not designed to move the plot forward in any way but which are absolutely fun and... it all works rather well.

Sequences like the bunny dance scene, the hat scene, the music box dance scene and so on. Really great little sketches which are inserted into the main plot strands and which mesh perfectly, establish the relationships between the characters, entertain, demonstrate the “good heart” at the centre of the whole Charlie Brown universe and, ultimately, make us laugh and smile.

And, of course, there’s Snoopy.

Snoopy is, absolutely, the Harpo Marx of the Peanuts world. His flights of fancy and various shenanigans are probably half of what keeps people watching. You know things are usually going to get very surreal when the beagle’s about and, in this era when Woodstock was also now a character, it’s the animals which give Peanuts the edge...

Little sequences like when Charlie Brown, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie and Snoopy go to the local store, for example, are absolute gold. Being as it’s Easter, of course, the satire of the store already having all the Christmas goods on sale (yep, even in the 1970s and before, the shops were taking the mickey and putting on the commercial pressure to spend at the earliest opportunity) is pitch perfect but it’s when Snoopy takes the ‘down’ escalator while everybody else takes the ‘up’ escalator that the tradition of surreal sight-gag comedy takes over... with Snoopy passing the rest of the gang going down opposite on each progressive floor as Charlie and the others keep climbing up a floor at a time. This is wonderful and it’s little touches like this and Woodstock imagining he's using an invisible elevator, supported by the noise of it in the sound effects, that really make these things worth watching periodically... at least for me.

I think my favourite moment comes as much from the observations of the director/animators on this one as it does from the mind of Charlie Schulz, it might be safe to conclude. When Snoopy looks into a peep hole in an elaborate egg in the store and spies some bunnies, we enter Snoopy’s imagination with him as the bunnies come to life and he jumps right into the scene and starts dancing with them. But it’s the end of the scene which is so special, as we cut back to our main beagle still looking into the egg and see that, indeed, Snoopy is not really dancing with bunnies anywhere except in his mind’s eye... but he is so into his dream like state that his little legs are dancing along still as he looks into the egg. Anyone who’s ever owned a dog and watched them while they dream will know exactly what that little reaction is all about and it’s just so beautifully observed that it never fails to get a big grin from me every time I watch this one.

And to top it all off, we have another of jazz composer Vince Guaraldi’s awesome Charlie Brown scores. I never get tired of hearing the consistently styled musical world he creates for these things and, although it’s not my favourite of his works, there’s some really cool stuff going on in this one still, including some very casually ‘hidden’ classical music covers, rearranged in a jazz idiom and standing up as another cohesive element which make these early TV specials such a pleasure to watch and hear.

So there you have it. It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown is one of the unmissable events of any Easter and it belongs on everyone’s choice of festive television programmes to fit in between their chocolate eggs and countless viewings of Ben Hur (reviewed here). If you’ve never seen any of the original, classic Charlie Brown specials before then, well.... you really should do and this is certainly one of the better shows to start on. A simplistic surface masking an incredibly sophisticated and underrated piece of late 20th Century art, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t let the Easter Beagle pass you by.

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