Even the greatest of screw-ups can still enjoy their own little triumphs if they let their true character shine through. Charlie Brown is that screw up, his bad luck exacerbated by a contrary nature, as he tries to fly a kite whilst all of the other kids go ice skating. The kite-eating tree standing mute is testimony to Charlie’s many failures.
Such is the frequency of these failures that Charlie is easy pickings for Lucy, his snobby and egotistical classmate, who charges him five cents for the privilege of being belittled as she offers him psychiatric help. His other friends, from the blanket obsessed Linnus, to bookish Marcie and tomboy Patty, try to offer him help and support, but the Charlie we meet at the start of the film is nowhere near capable of believing in himself.
Even the efforts of his loyal dog, Snoopy, have been fruitless. His constant striving to make Charlie better than he is have simply left the boy confused and at times frustrated. What Charlie needs, in order to grow, is something new. This is provided by the arrival of the little red-haired girl in his small town. The moment Charlie sees her he’s smitten, but how can a boy like him impress her? He doesn’t even have the courage to ring her doorbell – Snoopy has to do it for him.
This film though is both a feel good story and a morality tale. Charlie finds himself going from zero to hero when he gets a perfect score in a school test, much to Lucy’s chagrin. Soon everyone wants to be his friend, with his star rising high enough for his little sister to cash in on it in a funnily endearing attack on the fickle nature of our celebrity-obsessed culture. The test though, isn’t his. It’s Patty’s, who slept through the test and got her perfect score through blind luck. Charlie just signed it by mistake.
Charlie’s courage in admitting this, in front of the whole school, echoes his decision to put aside his magic tricks for the school talent show, so he can save his sister from humiliation. Her rodeo show has bombed, and as the other children laugh, she is reduced to tears. Only when Charlie dresses himself as a cow so she can catch him (in a scene wonderfully scored by the finale to Rossini’s William Tell) does her luck turn. At the same time Charlie’s compassion and his courage later on attract the little red-haired girl’s attention. When Charlie reads the whole of War and Peace in an attempt to win a gold star for their joint book report, he seals her affection for him.
Charlie does not of course know this until the end of the film, by which time his clumsy nature has ruined another kite, but by winning the red-haired girl’s heart through his kind and honest nature, Charlie becomes the darling of his friends. Even Lucy grudgingly bestows her admiration for his actions. That heroism, and the morality it imparts to the audience are mirrored in Snoopy’s own story.
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Inbetween helping Charlie, Snoopy has been writing the greatest tome ever put together by a dog. A stirring tale of love and dogfighting of the biplane flavour, Snoopy’s fantasy manages to be both an absurd romp and a far more ingenious way to communicate the values of persistence and determination to the audience. After his love, Fifi, is kidnapped by The Red Baron, Snoopy must battle his way through Fokkers and Zepplins to rescue her.
The result is hilarious, but it is Snoopy’s valour that, however different it may appear from Charlie’s, ensures he wins the day. Both stories are central to the film’s triumph, and for all its apparent simplicity, this film could never be accused of dumbing down. Instead, much like Inside Out, it simply has a message that can be universally understood, which makes it a far more grown-up enterprise than most films considered adult fare ever achieve.
By Gareth Wood