One anecdote from a Charles M. Schulz biography I read years ago said that whenever Schulz was considering hiring someone, he would take them out to lunch and see how they salted their soup. If they salted after they tasted it, they were hired; but, if they salted before they tasted it, there was no chance. Obviously, the alleged agoraphobe was not into extras for the sake of extras. So, it's no surprise that after 2000, when Schulz passed away, executive producer Bill Melendez decided he would add no salt to his Peanuts either. He vowed that all animated specials would only be made from Schulz's already-published cartoons. The result is choppy and episodic, but I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown is also, because of this decision, wonderfully pure, and the most worthy special since the original A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Sure, a popcorn and toast Thanksgiving dinner is fun, but have the specials ever really reached anything memorable or meaningful since Charlie Brown's melancholic Christmas twig? By focusing on the quick jokes of the strip, and cramming in as many as possible, I Want a Dog steers clear of any attempt to be poignant, and in doing so becomes more so than any other attempt, during any other co-opted holiday. Staying true to the original medium also allowed for a raw look at the special's unexpectedly invigorating main character, Peanuts' own Cousin Oliver, Rerun van Pelt.
Since Rerun's interactions are once-removed from everyone else—being a late addition to the cast—the patched together non-story of him wanting a dog acts more like a study on Peanuts rather than a new tale. It doesn't even approach any kind of ending, as it's treated so loosely. But this is exactly the genius behind it. Although Rerun's plight is similar to Charlie's eternal struggle against Lucy's football, or Linus' chasing of the Great Pumpkin, his is really the most ultimate, daring version, because it's so utterly basic and reasonable. After all, why shouldn't Rerun have a dog? The inexplicable nature of it, and the cruel denial from off-screen adults, makes Rerun's addition so much more than another young, cute addition to the cast—it's almost like an entire world shift. Suddenly, Charlie Brown's self-pitying has no place, and we are left to wonder, did it ever?
Putting Rerun in the mix gives us a peek at the Peanuts' characters as adults. Charlie Brown is actually stable, and helps the infinitely more sympathetic and needy Rerun throughout the story, loaning out a hilariously unwilling Snoopy. We also see Linus' blanket and thumb-sucking less like a quirk we want to celebrate and more like nonsense the boy needs to get over, as Rerun even makes fun of him for it. And Lucy's famous impatience and meanness is seen in a new light, as she's actually quite nice to the defenseless, deserving Rerun (not hard considering the fact that Rerun's voice actor, Jimmy Bennett, is just totally heartbreaking). It's so weird, yet so satisfying in its audacity, and all punctuated in an abrupt last scene with Charlie Brown at the end, commenting on the end credits and the end of life. Schulz didn't like salt, but apparently liked sugar even less.
Happy New Year, Charlie Brown, the other feature on this disc, does everything I Want a Dog avoided. In it, Charlie has to read War and Peace over winter break, and it shabbily creates a narrative out of it, involving a New Year's Eve party at Peppermint Patty's and a triangle with the Little Red Haired Girl. It even has a gratuitous full appearance by the Little Red Haired Girl, revealed as “Heather.” Her transition from imagination to reality is, I guess, supposed to make it more torturous that Charlie still doesn't connect with her... but she's fug, and you'll feel like you'd rather curl up with Tolstoy than that trash heap anyway. Or, at the very least, Rerun van Pelt.
DVD Bonus Features:
Interview with Mrs. Schulz and others about Rerun as a character, and how he emerged as a stand-in for Schulz himself in the 90's, with the boy's artistic streak, and feelings of powerlessness. In other words, how Schulz sowed the ingredients for the next perfect Christmas mouthpiece.
"I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown" is on sale December 1, 2009 and is rated G. Animation, Children & Family. Directed by Bill Melendez, Larry Leichliter. Written by Charles M. Schulzd. Starring Adam Taylor Gordon, Ashley Rose, Corey Padnos, Hannah Leigh Dworkin, Jimmy Bennett.